Monday, July 16 , 2018, 1:58 pm | Fair 72º


Paul Burri: How to Improve Things Without Making Any Changes

You can’t fix a problem — the real problem — unless you know what it is

Sorry for the misleading title, but the truth is that you probably can’t improve anything without making some changes. There’s an old saying that goes, “If you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, you’re gonna keep getting what you’ve been getting.” Sadly, this is a hard thing for many people to learn.

Often in my counseling career, I have had clients come to me complaining that their business isn’t working as well as they expected or as they would like it to work. Either sales are too low, production is too slow, costs are too high or profits are minimal.

You can’t fix a problem unless you know what the problem is. That seems obvious to me, but you’d be amazed how many people cannot understand that idea. I know a case where an organization had a tremendous problem trying to coordinate clients and facilitators. The real problem was not that of coordinating clients with facilitators but rather the system that was designed to do the coordinating. Instead of examining the issue of coordination, they kept trying to solve the problem by adding layer upon layer of procedures onto an already unworkable system.

In another case I read about, a large aerospace company had an elaborate system of generating and maintaining records of various production items. Whenever a new production release was issued, approximately seven copies were generated, to be distributed to various departments such as production control, purchasing, accounting, manufacturing, engineering, quality control, management, ad infinitum. All of these copies were being generated so every department that might possibly have some interest in this minutiae would be informed. But on investigation, it was discovered that most of the departments being copied had only a limited and sporadic need for the information.

Furthermore, it turned out that it was costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to maintain the system. Eventually the company changed the system to making only two copies of the document and then hiring two clerks at $15 per hour (2 x $15 x 2,000 hrs/year = $60,000 total per year) to do the job of occasionally retrieving copies for a particular department when needed.

But I digress. When I am working with a client who has come to me asking for help with a business, I start by trying to identify the problem — the real problem. Once we agree on what the problem is, I can usually make suggestions to change some aspect of the system or procedures. Unfortunately, I find that in far too many cases the client is reluctant or unwilling to make any changes.

I have never been able to figure that out. I know that change can be a fearful thing. We know that whatever we are doing is not working, but we still insist on continuing to do the same thing, resisting any changes. I have heard insanity defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Many times in my career I was called in to rescue and turn around failing companies. During my first few weeks I would simply walk around the company asking people what they were doing and, more important, why they were doing what they were doing. Often the answer would be, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” That answer was my instant alert. “Because we’ve always done it this way” is not the answer to why we do something.

If I got that sort of answer, it told me that the employee really didn’t know why. Do not misunderstand here. The current method may be the best way to do something, but when an employee doesn’t really know why, it is a first warning that there may be much better ways to do the thing. Sending telegrams may be the “way we’ve always done it,” but today, emails are a lot better, faster and cheaper.

And especially if “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t working, changes are clearly needed. Based on my experience, if you have a business and some aspect of it isn’t working, look at it closely to find out what is wrong with it and what changes need to be made to fix the problem. And then make whatever changes need to be made.

How can you be sure that the changes you make will solve the problem? Sorry, there are no guarantees in life.* But if you really understand the problem, you’re likely to be able to figure out a change to fix it. (Or maybe an outside consultant has some ideas.) Perhaps there are several changes possible. Try the most likely one. Measure the results. If that one doesn’t work, try the next one.

*But I can make you one guarantee. The problem will not be solved if you refuse to make any changes.

I’ll say it again: “If you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, you will keep on getting what you’ve been getting.”

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for previous Paul Burri columns. Follow Paul Burri on Twitter: @BronxPaul

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