Silver Bullets Are Seductive But Unhelpful – Especially In Uncertain Times
Mar 19, 2020
By Gaurav Gupta
Change is hard and complex, and changing the behaviors of millions of people is especially so. It is seductive to try to make it simple – or at least more defined and straightforward. For the millions of people who decide to go on a diet each year, for example, following a program like Atkins or Paleo is a straightforward way to get started. For the business leaders who are looking to make their businesses more efficient, more effective or more nimble, particularly when prompted by external events like the current global pandemic, following a methodology like Six Sigma or Agile similarly provides a seemingly easy way to get started and a roadmap to follow. When uncertainty is high, few things are more reassuring than having a plan to follow.
There are successful stories to look to for inspiration and a well-documented process to follow that requires little upfront thought and planning. But for every company, like GE, that was successful in driving change through Six Sigma, there are countless others that were not as successful – or successful at all. For every successful Atkins weight loss victory there are countless people who started and stopped achieving no meaningful results.
The data below shows searches on Google for some popular management techniques and diets. These searches are a proxy for the popularity of these methodologies and show a dramatic decline in the popularity of Six Sigma and Quality Circles. We can see that Agile still has some runway. One possibility for this trend of a rise in popularity followed by a gradual decline, is that these methodologies are simply being replaced by newer, more effective ones. Another hypothesis is that these methodologies got popular on the backs of some great successes but eventually were found to not be universally effective.Today In: Leadership Strategy
The reality may well be a combination of both. What is clear is that many organizations, in their quest to find easy answers to the complex questions inherent in managing a modern-day business, turn to the most popular ideas of the day and mostly fail to see any real benefits. None of these methodologies are inherently bad or invaluable – if they didn’t work in at least some scenarios, they would never have gotten so popular. However, once popularized they are stretched in their application – or implemented in a manner that reduces the concept to some seemingly sensible but limiting techniques that are implemented without a robust understanding of the underlying ideas.
So, before jumping on the bandwagon of Agile or 360° feedback (or the latest diet) there are a few questions you should ask yourself:
Why are we doing this – and how will our business performance be improved?
While it might seem obvious at the start, once the teams have been spun up, the budgets established, the implementation timeline determined and the objectives cascaded to each unit, function and department, the goals are often no longer clear. When a process is so well established, it becomes easy to default to. There is a risk of operating on a sort of autopilot –looking at procedural metrics and losing sight of the business goals and how the context may have shifted since the start of the whole effort. Companies start to focus on how many Six Sigma black belts have been trained or how many projects have been completed, instead of focusing on the business impact of these efforts. This is especially true in rapidly changing environments where it can be difficult to tease out the impact of the efforts. Worse still, often the reasons for following a particular management fad is the fear of missing out on some terrific benefit that everyone else is realizing. A few years ago, in a conversation about the future manufacturing footprint, a leader of a large food business admitted that the main reason behind pursuing a large investment in a Chinese facility was that everyone else was doing so. This may well have been the right decision, but it was certainly not made based on robust analysis of the available information.
What are the principles behind the approach?
In an increasing fast paced world, success is contingent on many employees actively engaged in making things better. As my colleague Justin Wasserman remarks, “Operational excellence can be achieved through engagement instead of enforcement.” Engagement requires more than an understanding of processes and methods; it requires an understanding and commitment to the principles and ideas – followed by actual actions and behaviors. Almost all management methodologies originated from some principles and specific goals that the company that developed them was looking to achieve. For example, at its heart, Lean is about focusing on activities that add value to a customer. This can mean different things in different businesses, but too often businesses jump right into techniques and methods without reflecting on the principles and goals that underpin them. A one size approach may fit most, many, or hardly anyone at all. It could be highly dependent upon what you’re trying to accomplish.
I worked with a paper and pulp company which, in its quest to be more efficient, implemented a Lean program. The Lean methodology, which originated from Toyota, was designed for the automobile industry which has an almost infinite number of different products – models, configurations, colors and the like. By contrast, a manufacturer of corrugated paper has just a few. For an automobile manufacturer, minimizing working inventory is critical – you don’t want to be stuck with a lot of clutch assemblies if consumer interest moves further to automatic transmissions. However, the downside to minimizing working inventory is that the supply chain is not as resilient and you increase the probability of lost production from missing components or materials. For a paper company, this lost time is far more valuable than the reduction in working inventory. By implementing a method (to reduce working inventory) rather than adopting the principle (focus on what adds value to the customer) the company actually became less efficient.
Which parts of this approach is relevant to our business?
Another way to stay focused on relevance to your business is to ask which techniques/methods are actually relevant to solving your biggest challenges. In the previous example, some aspects of Lean manufacturing such as reducing product waste were highly relevant, whereas others were not. Another version of this is to understand which functions or departments are likely to benefit from the methodology. The iterative approach that is the hallmark of the Agile methodology may be highly effective for sales or product development but may be less so for customer service or human resources.
What is the most effective way to implement the approach?
Even when the methodology checks out to be a good fit with the needs of your business, poor execution can undermine the effectiveness of its implementation. Companies often rely on newly created departments or technical experts who are steeped in the methodology to lead the implementation. This can backfire, as these individuals are typically highly committed to the approach and can fail to see the limitations, overlook the essential step of creating strong buy-in, and can push too far too fast, leading to disruption and cynicism. Starting from the underlying principles and an understanding of which aspects of the approach are most relevant to the business allows leaders to develop an implementation plan that integrates with the business operations, includes a clear articulation of the benefits to be realized, demonstrates early success and engages employees through early and active participation.
New and popular management approaches and ideas can be very useful for businesses in keeping pace with the rate of change. However, beware of the frequency with which these ideas and concepts get replaced with a rigid methodology and tools. These techniques so often get blindly applied without a robust understanding of the underlying principles or without a clear sense of connection to the real business challenges, all of which, not surprisingly, is highly ineffective at making any meaningful change.
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