What to do when honking gets you nowhere
I was recently in Los Angeles driving to an appointment on Santa Monica Boulevard. A block ahead, a fire truck entered the street going the same direction as I was with lights flashing and siren blaring. Unfortunately, the traffic was so heavy that the cars had nowhere to go. So the fire truck – obviously on its way to an emergency – blared, honked and flashed but made no more progress than anyone else. Half a mile farther, I was still only one block behind the fire truck.
I recently had a client with the same problem as the fire truck. This company had grown steadily over the years and added many processes, communication vehicles, layers of management, priorities, initiatives, etc., to the point where it had as much traffic as Santa Monica Boulevard. When something really important needed to be worked on, no amount of noise (communication), lights (visibility by senior management) or honking (placement of the new initiative on the already burgeoning list of things to do) would allow the idea to progress more rapidly than the many existing things already did. The company’s “firmware” needed an upgrade.
Growth is a beautiful thing! It allows us to employ more people, get our product to more deserving customers, provide more advancement opportunity for our co-workers and offer an exciting work environment. But just like the clogged road in L.A., eventually there’s so much “traffic” that a new infrastructure needs to be built. One option is adding more lanes for the ever-growing amount of traffic, like companies installing more systems and people to handle the ever-growing list of priorities. But in this case, I believe that’s a mistake. (If you are interested in capacity of systems, consider reading a bit about Little’s Law.)
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Where’s he going with this analogy? Buses versus cars? Superhighways? Transporters from Star Trek?” My suggestion to this firm is not more, but different. A different planning process with fewer priorities and different communication plans and a skinnier organizational design. The goal is to reduce the amount of traffic, not build a bigger road. It takes an insightful CEO to tackle this because there are so many things to deal with daily that the important loses out to the urgent. The question is, “Will the fire truck arrive after the building burned down?”