The health of the herd

Don't sweat the small stuff at the expense of the bigger picture

There’s always something wrong. Perfection doesn’t exist in business. Perhaps it doesn’t exist anywhere, but there are some spots on the planet that might be close: Glacier National Park, the Tetons, chairlift KT-22 at Squaw Valley or a 20-inch cutthroat trout on the first cast.

Business, however, is a system, and what’s most important is system-wide health.

Maybe like a herd of buffalo. Painful as it might be, if a few buffalo are in tough shape but the herd is healthy, that’s as good as it gets. If you stack rank the buffalo — what used to be common practice — one of them has to be on the bottom. Ten percent don’t make the top 90 percent. You get the picture.

If you’re the herd’s chief veterinarian officer (CVO), you might find yourself overly occupied with the few buffalo that aren’t as healthy as they should be. This might be because you’re too sensitive to suffering, because you have an excessively developed sense of fairness or because you loathe when some don’t live up to herd standards. As a result, you focus much attention on “fixing” the few at the expense of the entire herd’s health.

I’m an old multiunit guy. When you manage hundreds of stores, there are always single units or districts, regions or areas that don’t perform as well as others. If you stack rank them, you’ll know who’s on the bottom. It’s frustrating to see the same names at the end of the list for extended periods. It makes sense to try to fix them; after all, they make the herd look bad.

The challenge is that if you spend a great deal of energy trying to fix the broken stores, you do so at the expense of potentially making your winners stronger, benefiting the entire system and shareholders, to a much higher degree.

This isn’t a philosophical problem; it’s real! I’ve seen boards and executives get hung up on broken segments of their business to the detriment of the healthy herd.

Perfection is the enemy of success in many circumstances.

That’s easy to say, but it requires tough decisions in the real battle of business. Are you focused on the herd’s health and growth, or are you spending too much time and energy on the stragglers?

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