Saturday, 22 April 2006

Doing Better

In many organizations today, the biggest challenge is assimilating new ideas and practices, and making them work effectively.

So what’s the big deal, we may ask? Is this even a problem?

For individuals like ourselves, when we see something we think is better, we go ahead and do it. If we read in a newspaper or magazine article somewhere that says it is much cheaper and quicker to shop for certain items through the Internet, we go ahead and try it out for ourselves. And when we are satisfied that it is indeed the better way, we go ahead and do it.

Even within our families, there are usually no second thoughts about changing the way we do things. When mom goes around her neighborhood friends and finds out that in a certain supermarket, groceries are selling for less than where she currently shops, then she’s off to the new one on her next shopping trip.

So why can’t companies do as individuals and families do? Are they not anyway a collection of individuals, the same as a family? Why when they are presented with a better way of doing things do they still find it very difficult to change their old ways?

There are a number of reasons for this, but surprisingly enough, it is the fact that organizations are composed of individuals that makes change extremely difficult.

Say that again? We just said that as individuals, it is very easy for us to assimilate better ways of doing things. Why is it difficult then for an organization that contains many of “us” individuals to do the same?

Well, for a start, not all individuals have the same tastes and preferences. For every one that would switch supermarkets because of price, there is probably another switching the other way because the more expensive one is cleaner, friendlier and closer to their home.

For both individuals switching from one to the other, they have made the right choice, according to their own criteria. One was looking for economy, the other for convenience and accessibility. In their own assessment of their situation, both have won big time.

When those same two individuals work for, say the supply chain function of an organization, they may very well bring their same perceptions to influence their personal judgment; so one may look for suppliers based purely on pricing economies, and the other on service levels. One’s better way of doing things is not necessarily the other’s.

Multiply these individual preferences and selection criteria over so many individuals and you get a sense for just how complex the challenge becomes to let them all agree that things can be done better, and ensure that they go about improving them.

This will not happen without an effective process for doing so. Think of an instance where a subordinate may have a fantastic idea that his superior does not necessarily share. How on earth would the subordinate even contemplate making his idea known to the wider world without risking upsetting his boss?

What will probably end up happening is he goes along halfheartedly with his boss, knowing all along that if he had been invited to share his thoughts, things could have been better.

How then can a process like this be institutionalized and sustained in an organization?

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, April 22, 2006 (