When You Can’t Grow

Grow or die. That’s Nature’s way. And the way of business. But here’s the rub: today’s ideas of lean, cost cutting, belt tightening, and downsizing staff all trim the excess capacity necessary to fuel growth. That’s right, businesses need excess capacity to grow.

My father – an efficiency expert, methods engineer, and finally systems analyst – taught me about the three systems operating in every change. He spent his career working in an unusual department of a large utility. His unit was charged with what we now call continuous improvement. Members of the team rotated around the company, each assigned to one department at a time, charged with finding out what was working, what was not working, and what was next, designing new procedures, and implementing them with the department.

He taught me that these three systems inherent in change operated simultaneously in his world – in each change experience he facilitated. The first is The Way We Do It Now. In this system things are sometimes working, but always breaking down. The second system is Design The New System. In this system staff have to drop the work they’re struggling to do in the existing system and devote attention and energy to figuring out the new way. This creates a strain on the existing system. Lots of meetings for example.

But, he told me, people forget the third system – the most difficult one – the transition from the old system to the new system. This middle system requires substantial energy and creates big strain on the old system as resources are used to run the old system and implement the new one. This is one reason why change is so difficult for businesses.

Growing your business requires this kind of change. And this kind of energy. It also requires this kind of resources – enough to run these systems simultaneously. When your existing systems have been leaned and pushed to the max and are breaking down, growth can feel like an impossible burden. It is.

Years ago I learned that, in bringing continuous improvement to a business, as we began opening doors of possibility and doors of trouble, we were really opening Pandora’s Box. Although the idea was to fix each trouble in a way that moved us toward the best possible outcome, we kept uncovering doors behind the doors. More possibilities – more trouble – more things to fix. It became apparent there was not enough capacity to correct everything that turned up. We would have to focus on the critical few.

That didn’t work either. Systems are complicated. And one rule of a system is that if we touch one part, we touch them all. Sweeping change is just not possible for most businesses unless they’re totally failing. The word for that kind of sweeping change is “turnaround,” and it’s usually extremely ugly.

So I began looking for leverage. Small changes that would ripple through the company to bring change organically. These small changes have to do with the deep structures that characterize our work, our communication, our ways of thinking, and our organization. Effecting these small, leveraged changes works. It’s more about people and training than about installing new processes and systems – although that’s part of it.

Even so, capacity remains an issue. Growth requires resources. I am a resource. In addition to identifying and nurturing organic change, I work with you and your organization when you need me to help move action forward and you don’t have anyone with the knowledge or time to devote to growth. I’m often called upon to take on projects that no one has done – not even me. These projects are not always something I enjoy, but over the years I’ve gotten good at taking on this role. I’m a kind of a wildcard for businesses short on capacity to grow.

PS: there’s good news. About 40% of most businesses is waste. I’m always in waste recovery mode so I will generally save businesses a lot more than I cost. And paying me for project work is less expensive than retraining your staff or hiring a specialist.

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