Some great process improvement ideas are dead on arrival. Not because they’re wrong; merely because they’re so far ahead of their time as to be impossible to implement under current conditions. The idea is right but the world isn’t ready for it. Therefore, anyone pitching or endorsing the new idea is labelled a crank (or worse). That’s a mistake – and a potentially damning one – because it mistakes the idea’s shortcomings for why it was resisted.
For context, I’m not talking about political thought, philosophy, or religion changes here. This is a business column, and those three topics really shouldn’t be discussed in the workplace if you value nonviolent professionalism. I’m thinking about business process improvements … what we called “re-engineering” back in the 1990s. Attempting to change the status quo to improve workers’ quality of life and businesses’ effectiveness. Activities that are clearly designed to make things better yet often seem to have exactly the opposite effect when implemented.
I want to focus on two examples from the same year: 1995. My primary job back then was Executive Officer (XO) of the 555th Medical Detachment (Forward Surgical Team), US Army. My secondary job – what we called an “additional duty” – was to be the Deputy Information Management Officer of the 1st Medical Group (our HQ’s HQ). That meant that half of my time was spent supervising the enlisted medics in the “triple nickel” and the other half was spent building networks and performing tech support for all the units falling under 1st Med.
In mid-autumn 1995 (if I remember right; it’s been a while), I was asked by 1st Med to help test out a new prototype solution for speeding up Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services on our ground vehicles. Every Tuesday morning, all the soldiers who were “fit for duty” were required to participate in “motor stables.” This was the ritualized inspection of a unit’s trucks, trailers, and generators according to Army Technical Manuals. Each trooper painstakingly inspected “their” equipment using it’s TM’s PMCS checklist and a stack of DA Form 2404s.
The thing was, no one was allowed to leave the motor pool until 100% of 2404s were turned into the warrant officer who ran the yard. Said WO would then prioritise and schedule repairs. This was challenging because soldiers were required to physically have the correct TO in their hands when completing their PMCS inspection. If a unit had six M998 HMMWVs (like our detachment) and had only one copy of the specific TM (also like our detachment), then five drivers would be forced to wait to do their own checks while driver #1 completed his.
I appreciate that the preceding paragraph might have been gobbledygook for people who never served. Trust me: every current and former American soldier just nodded wearily, left this browser tab open, and opened their liquor cabinet. Motor stables was a gruelling weekly ritual.
The process ran excruciatingly long when it was blazing hot, freezing cold, pouring down rain, hailing, etc. Any process improvement that might have reduced lag was welcome. So, the boffins at … some headquarters somewhere; it was never clear … devised a state-of-the-art computerized PMCS solution. Instead of requiring all units to order, store, and maintain printed copies of each TM, they could replace all the physical books with PDFs on laptops! WOOO!
I got dragged into 1st Med’s field test on a cold, rainy day. I tried to use the prototypee laptop-based TM the same way my medics and I would use the physical book and … let’s say the results were “disheartening.” I made the following key points in my review:
- Our units didn’t have Army-issued laptop computers and couldn’t afford to purchase any
- The test laptops had a maximum battery life of ~45 minutes … motor stables typically lasted 3-6 hours
- The passive matrix displays on the test laptops could only be read in shade; we had to keep our laptop underneath the hummer throughout the test just to read its screen
- The laptops weren’t weatherproof; working outside in the rain and snow or setting them down on wet surfaces would destroy the flimsy computers in short order
The process improvement idea was good, but the technology of the day couldn’t make the idea work. The test gear disappeared, and the initiative seemed to disappear. I kept the CDs, though, just in case the project ever came back (it never did as far as I know).
Flash forward to 2010 when I was the head of IT for a USAF air wing. Some boffins from headquarters sent our wing a case of Apple iPads for the pilots to strap to their thigh for reading all sorts of manuals while they were flying. Processing power, data storage, battery life, and useability had all improved to the point where the original idea was finally feasible.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that modern soldiers can perform their PMCS checks on an iPhone app. Maybe they take live video of the faults they discover and append them to an electronic DA 2404. Maybe they can x-ray their engines with their phone’s camera. Hell, maybe the Army is buying tactical Teslas that inspect themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised at anything anymore.
The important takeaway is that ambitious process improvement attempts aren’t “bad” or “stupid” or “pointless” just because the equipment needed to implement them isn’t mature enough. If I had to guess, I’d say that two-thirds of the “good ideas” I’ve encountered in botht he military and in the corporate worlds fell short of their potential and were impossible to implement as-designed. Many were interesting, even captivating, visions of what-could-be-if-only … As one of my sergeants liked to joke, “A plus for vision sir, but D minus for execution.”
So, were the boffins behind the laptop PMCS project “cranks” (or worse)? Of course not. There was a ton of potential in their idea. We started experimenting with a rapid inventory solution in the 555th for our clinical supplies using a Newton PDA, a laser barcode scanner, and a radio set. The concept of computerizing the tracking of our essential Class VIII (medical) consumables at the point of use and transmitting actual supply levels up to our HQ in real time would have potentially increased our unit’s lifesaving ability significantly by speeding up critical resupply.
We never got beyond the prototype stage in 1996 because we couldn’t find a programmer to write the necessary Newton application to function test our concept. Flash forward twelve years and the first smart phones could do everything we’d envisioned and at a fraction of the price. The first result in my Google search for a modern inventory app was a review of the “top ten” solutions on the market … out of thousands, probably. I hope that the people who took over the “triple nickel” have such a solution now and it saves them a ton of time and effort.
So, what’s my point? Why share these stories here? It can’t be just for the nostalgia value …
It’s not. Really. I meant what I said at the top: deriding anyone that pitches or endorses a new idea as a crank (or worse) is a mistake, and a potentially damning one. Good ideas are what separates a thriving organisation from a stagnant one. Analysis, experimentation, and persistent improvement are necessary … and also difficult.
We tend to forget that process improvement is difficult even when all the technology exists to make a proposed change function as intended. Trying to break a work centre’s established routine stirs up resistance. People instinctively resist change. That’s normal. Trying to implement a change that depends on new or incomplete technology is exponentially more difficult, but it’s not the real reason why most process improvement efforts fail.
People resist change even when they know the change necessary because of what the “desired end state” means for them. The lack of job protections in the US economy means that any proposed process change might be the precursor to (or the justification for) “down-sizing” once the change is implemented. People who aren’t independently wealthy (i.e., almost everyone) are compelled to prioritize their continued individual survival over their employer’s efficiency goals. For many Americans, process change represents more than just an adjustment challenge … it constitutes an existential threat. If you make your own job obsolete, your employer is incentivized to do away with you rather than reward you with a new job for your selfless excellence.
As such, it’s natural that people would reflexively criticise a proposed process change. They’ll pounce on any potential flaw in the plan to discredit the entire endeavour, thereby justifying why the status quo shouldn’t be disturbed. It’s not a matter of people being inflexible luddites; it’s a matter of people needing a paying job to live in a country that believes poverty is a moral failing, and therefore deserves contempt and punishment rather than compassion and assistance. It’s self-defence, especially when you’re squatting in the basement of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs.
That’s why I chose these two examples of change: one of the most important differentiators between military service and civilian life is that squaddies can’t be fired on a whim! If any of the changes we’d proposed or toyed with didn’t work out, no one was in danger of losing their job or their salary or their home or their healthcare. If the CD-ROM based PCMS checks idea failed, we’d return to our book-based checks the following Tuesday like nothing had happened. If our live inventory system didn’t work, we’d revert to clipboards and carbonless forms. There was no risk other than wasted time; we were free to experiment and try new things because we knew we wouldn’t be punished if our experiments didn’t pan out. There is, in my experience, no such freedom in the corporate world. Not in America, at any rate.
Therefore, if you’re serious about implementing meaningful process change in your workspace, your first and highest priority must be to address the psychological safety needs of the people responsible for implementing the change and the people who will be impacted by the change (should it prove successful). Create, explain, and commit to whatever safeguards are required to ensure no one will be punished (or, worse, fired) if the change doesn’t live up to expectations.
If this argument seems ridiculous – “Why, we would never do that to our workers; we’re more like a family here!” – I submit that you’re dead wrong. That might be true for the people at the top who are wealthy enough that they no longer need a paying job to survive. It’s not true below the boardroom level. Everyone stuck shouldering the executive palanquin rather than riding in it knows that they’re expendable… and they don’t dare forget it.
So, does this mean that process improvement is a hopeless endeavour? Of course not. Process improvement (and its ambitious big brother “process optimization”) is a critical aspect of modern business. Eliminating wasteful or cost-ineffective process steps can free up valuable human talent to apply their brilliance in more profitable areas. Get rid of the drudgery and you’ll improve morale as well as efficiency. Just be warned: your people must believe that you mean what you say when you ask them to take a risk with their tenuous professional future. Leadership’s credibility is essential for making any sort of major change work.
Address your people’s essential need for security first or else accept that your process change attempts are likely to fail. It’s not about the technology. It’s not about the policies. It’s not about the engineering. It’s about the people. Neglect their survival needs and they’ll find ways to scuttle your “good idea.” Teething pains with the supporting technologies are often just a convenient excuse, not something causal.
Funny how the Army understood that better than the society it safeguarded. As young lieutenants, we were constantly reminded of our core responsibilities as officers: Mission first, people always.