Don't make the mistake of being a typewriter repair shop
The photo above epitomises for me one of the fundamental principles of effective change: that there is no point in getting better at doing those things we shouldn’t be doing at all. But how often do we take this viewpoint and how many methods actively encourage us to look at things this way? Not many.
I’ve used this photo a number of times to start off presentations about change and improvement work. It always seems to get people’s attention and sticks in people’s memories long after anything else that I might have said.
I’m sure that the proprietor of this small local business didn’t shut down because of any technical incompetency. In fact, I’m sure that with every passing year he became better and better and better at repairing typewriters. Yet from our point of view, we can see that the world around him changed and he didn’t. He became better and better at doing something that wasn’t helping him stay in business. Its easy to see the principle at work in an example as direct as this but when we try to look at our own processes, each seems to have a justification and reason for its existence. It seems hard to pick out a specific one and say ‘we shouldn’t be wasting our time working on this; its not helping us’. What’s the yardstick by which we make that kind of judgement?
Most often, it is simply ‘the purpose’. What is the purpose of the organisation, department or service (whatever the scale you are working on)? This is most often related to a customer need (be that customer a person or another business) and the purpose should be reflecting how your service is meeting that need. If a process directly helps that purpose to be fulfilled then it is something that is worth improving. If it doesn’t then time spent on improving it might not deliver any real lasting benefit and perhaps that whole process should be killed completely. A typical example is a complaints procedure. Energy invested in improving a customer complaints procedure is likely focussed in the wrong place. It would be better to focus on the processes that are causing the complaints in the first place. More effort yes, but higher ultimate value.
The key point is that it is not enough to focus on improving processes. They can all be made more efficient. But that’s not the point. We’re not in business to run processes. We’re in business to meet a customer need. At the end of the day, if all we focus on is improving our existing processes and we ignore the wider purpose of those processes, we run the risk of ending up like the typewriter repair shop in the picture above.