Do costs of ‘improvement’ really indicate the relevance of an initiative?

Improvement: shoot this nag and replace it with a new horse, or ox or a steam tractor. Instead why not just give it decent food, water & exercise? What is the impact? What is the cost?

A lot of money is spent on ‘change’ and ‘improvement’. Often a major restructure or implementation of IT are at the fore in improvement investments with new facilities or equipment upgrades (both of which are costly) are not far behind on the list.

It is also common for money or time (usually both) to be spent on customer surveys or staff surveys to glean ‘data’ which it is hoped will inform what type of improvement is needed. Is this always necessary? Is the money which is spent on improvement a good indicator of whether that improvement will be worthwhile – is it a decent ‘return on investment’. This is not always clear, since a change may set off a spiral of outcomes (which will generate positive cost savings and new negative cost burdens) but which may or may not be included in the overall analysis of ‘total cost’ (when they should really be included).

Pat Nevin identified how a small (low cost) change to the surface around top flight professional football pitches could improve the quality of football during competitive matches; an analysis achieved just by looking at the ‘system’ of football in modern stadiums. The cost-benefit might be hard to gauge, but at very least, reduced likelihood of player injury (e.g. slipping on the surface and twisting a knee) is likely to be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Are IT system introductions always based on knowing how the system should operate to deliver its correct purpose? Are restructures based on knowing how the system will deliver the team’s correct purpose? Will a new piece of new equipment enable a worker to deliver their correct job purpose? Or will these changes just enable a piece of work (which may in itself not be relevant any more) to be done faster, more cleanly, in a ‘modern’ way, in a more ‘user friendly’ manner, yet have no impact on delivery the things that matter (the purpose of the work)?

Understanding the impact of incremental improvements is important. We need to assess what is happening in work, whether the patterns are consistent and predictable, then make a reasoned change and monitor if the impact is positive, then continue the cycle. This is continuous improvement and is based upon building knowledge. It is less ‘sexy’, has lower profile and takes time, but the outcomes are far superior – a better way.

Further Reading:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality,The Free Press, NY

Scholtes, P. (1998), The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New York: McGraw-Hill

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.