It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the way you perform a particular operation or process is optimised. But it pays to check periodically and change things if improvements are found.
If “it’ll never happen to us” is the most expensive phrase in business, then “if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it” must surely be the second most costly.
The most successful businesses are the ones with a culture of learning and continuous improvement. They are adaptive and flexible and constantly examining what they do and how they do it in order to get better results.
Businesses that don’t periodically subject themselves to a critical evaluation of their processes and approaches nearly always end up shouldering unnecessary costs.
A case in point
A chemical manufacturer produces what, over the years, has been viewed as a problematic wastestream. It’s chemically complex and hazardous, and the presence of one particular component has meant that disposal has been limited to a single outlet for over a decade, rendering the chemical company severely exposed in the event that treatment and disposal capacity is ever curtailed or withdrawn.
And yet it turns out that that limiting component doesn’t exist in the waste; it’s a chemical impossibility. The manufacturer responsible for the waste, thinking it was covering all the bases, declared it as a constituent because it’s present in the production process and it thought it best to assume some might therefore also find its way into the wastestream (better to be safe than sorry).
It’s been doing so the entire time, and it took someone with an inquiring mind, asking a dumb question, to identify the error.
With proof that the problem substance isn’t and can’t be present, it now means that many more specialist waste treatment and disposal facilities will be able to receive and deal with the wastestream. Opening up competition will not only improve security of treatment capacity but it will mean that it’s possible to negotiate better prices now nobody has a monopoly.
The bottom line in this instance is that the chemical manufacturer, by not periodically revisiting the description it was using for the wastestream in question and getting external help sooner, has endured unnecessarily high costs for over a decade.
You don’t know what you don’t know
The case above illustrates two things:
Firstly, it’s necessary to periodically perform some sort of ‘sense check’ to validate the assumptions behind why you do something a particular way.
And, secondly, it shows the value of seeking external expertise – because you don’t know what you don’t know.
The chemical manufacturer hadn’t really considered the impacts of over-declaring the composition of its waste, and it took an external review by consultants familiar with the UK chemical waste treatment sector to tease it out.
There can sometimes be a reluctance to pay for outside consultants, but doing so can prove to be invaluable.
For a start, it’s impossible to be expert at everything and so getting help is entirely sensible.
Whether it’s waste management, as in the case above, or energy and resource use, or emergency preparedness – it pays to keep looking at what you do, how you do it, and whether it’s (a) even necessary and (b) being done the best way it can be.
It’s particularly important to keep in mind that things change as businesses grow and evolve: what might have been entirely sensible 5 years ago, when your process was still in its infancy, may now be completely out of date.
And there’s also the problem of how people are trained to operate your processes and perform your operations: if every new starter gets shown how to do it by ‘the old guard’ then inappropriate practices can easily get passed on, whilst further embedding the notion that “we’ve always done it this way” which creates inertia.
‘Business as usual’ won’t help you find all the things you’ve been doing that could be done better to help you grow.
Fail to plan, plan to fail
Whilst it’s good to embrace change in the pursuit of continuous improvement, it’s vital that change is properly planned before its executed.
People play a big part in any change, and so it’s important to make sure the impacts on them are considered – get it wrong, and you can easily upset morale.
Then there’s the domino effect: you make a beneficial change in one part of the organisation, only for it to then cause unintended and unwanted consequences elsewhere. This is particularly apparent in businesses where different departments don’t often interact with or understand the functions that other departments perform – or the interdependencies that exist between them.
But remember, even when you involve people in change, it doesn’t mean that implementing it will be straightforward. We’ve identified these four stages that people and businesses go through when trying to change things:
At this early stage, people tend to deny the need for change and will continue to bury their heads in the sand.
Eventually, people will start to appreciate change is necessary, but any efforts at making changes will be painfully slow.
Now, the need for and advantages of change are well understood, but mistakes are made in the enthusiasm to achieve change.
Eventually, change becomes an accepted practice, but it’s managed and planned for so that its achieved gracefully and swiftly.
You can apply these to entire businesses, departments, teams and even individuals, and understanding them is crucial to proper planning.
Being able to recognise what stage you’re at will help you develop the tools needed to transition from one stage to the next.
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