Use Reason

Using reason may seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but in fact most decisions are made because of tradition rather than logic. This is a habit everyone must develop to survive, because it saves think time: if one had to stop and think about every little thing one'd take forever just to get out of bed in the morning. 99% of the things people do should be done the same way each time, with no pause for thought.

But the habit is often carried too far. It's important to reconsider habits occasionally, and when the time is right, to redesign them. When redesigning, there is some logical benefit to keeping things as they were, such as because of the cost of retraining. But it's important to avoid sticking with tradition beyond all logic.

One must stick with habits to move quickly in complex situations, but it's still reasonable to take the time to plan out what habits one wishes to have, and to then retrain oneself in the new habits. So one still uses habits 100% of the time to get things done, but "reprograms" them occasionally to keep them up to date with changing circumstance.

Reason and Business

This lesson is especially important for managers. Part of what managers do is to figure out how to improve business habits, which are called processes. This is called process improvement. It's hard to change one's personal habits, with only one person involved; it's much harder to change company processes, because there are multiple people who must change.

Bureaucraticism is the oppose of reason. A bureaucracy is one big habit, within which change is practically impossible because the processes are spread over such a distance, and because no one person is in control of a whole process. Fortunately, within a small company or group this can be counteracted by management.

Let's take as an example of the reasoned approach an old bugaboo: weekly staff meetings. These are usually instituted by a manager who is thinking of solving only one small problem. Unfortunately, the cure is usually worse than the disease. The error is that the manager is not considering the big picture, the overall goal: to help people to get their jobs done. If everyone involved with the process had a say in its design, the result would work more efficiently.

The Devil is in the Details

This brings us to a key point: details matter. They matter a lot. Especially at management levels, every decision has broad ramifications because it affects a lot of people. A bad policy that wastes 20 minutes per person for 20 people is costing the company an entire person-day of work. This amplification effect means that every decision at higher management levels must be carefully examined for overall impact.

Take again the case of the weekly staff meeting; besides the time for the meeting itself, everyone spends a bit of time preparing for the meeting, commutes to the meeting (maybe only 10 minutes per person wrapping something up to get to the meeting, but we just saw how those per-person costs can add up), and if the meeting is poorly scheduled (which is common), the meeting has too small a block of time to do real work before lunch. These are problems with any kind of meeting, not just weekly staff meetings.

The weekly staff meeting has additional flaws. Although the manager may feel that good comes of the interaction between the workers, face to face, it doesn't work that way. The real work is done one-on-one between workers. At such meetings most people sit around bored, or even if interested are interested mostly in things that have no application to their work. That is, just because someone is interested doesn't mean that fact provides value to the company.

Once the manager thinks about these things and understands all the impacts of a possible decision, a real solution can be devised. This is where creativity comes in. The manager could use technology such as email to replace the meeting. S/he could call the individuals one by one to get their reports, saving time for the workers at a larger cost to the manager. S/he could have minimeetings with subsets of the group for more focused discussions.

I prefer the one-on-one between the manager and the worker, with others brought in as the situation warrants. This approach saves the most time for the worker, and is the most effective: quiet workers can be drawn out about what they really think, and workers who need little direction can get by with very short meetings. It takes less time than one might think for the manager too, as a bunch of short meetings take about the same time as a single long meeting. There is some need for everyone to see what everyone else is doing, but I prefer daily status reports by email for that.

But whatever the decision, the important point is that it be reasoned out, as a logical solution to the problem, not just choosing a solution because it's the way your grandpappy used to do it.

Revisit Decisions

Once made, a decision shouldn't be cast in stone; it should be revisited over time, small adjustments made to improve it, and large adjustments made if it isn't working. An example of a failure to revisit is given by Tom DeMarco, an efficiency expert. He once went to a company, analyzed their situation, and recommended that each person at the company keep a log of their time usage. This turned up huge inefficiencies within a month, that the company was able to correct, thereby making them more productive. When Tom visited the company again 3 years later, he found to his horror that they were _still_ keeping the logs. It had become part of the corporate tradition, even though it had become a burden rather than a benefit after the first month of improvements. The company had learned the specific lesson of the time log, but completely missed the larger lesson of thinking about what was going on.
Substantive changes:
    March 2, 1996: created.
    August 10, 1996: tightened.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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