Business excellence: why sound business methods fail so often

Don’t confuse the scaffolding for the building.

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It is right that we should invest considerable time and effort learning new methods and approaches to manage business, but we must take great care never to confuse the method with the purpose.

While it can be enjoyable and satisfying to learn and employ a particular method, we must take care not to lose ourselves in it. If we do, we can easily lose sight of why we adopted it in the first place.

There are two key questions which must be constantly borne in mind:

  • What business problem we are trying to solve?
  • What are the most appropriate methods for solving this problem?

Confusing the problem with the solution

Methods such as Agile, Lean, SAFe and Six Sigma are enablers – means to ends. But all too often, the method itself seems to take on a life of its own – and then in the eyes of the business, it actually becomes the purpose.

Once we adopt a method and have everyone in the business using it, we can easily become dazzled by its seemingly hard-edged measurements. In Lean, we count the number of Kaizen events we have up; in Six Sigma we count the number of Green and Black Belts, all as if this has actually replaced business outcomes as our main purpose.

With our focus firmly on the tools we are using, our business objectives have now almost become immaterial and before we know it, our desired business outcomes are just assumed. And what an assumption!

Method for method’s sake

People can become enamored and seduced by the idea of becoming a practitioner of note in a particular method – Lean, Agile, SAFe and so on. There is great pride in becoming a certified practitioner in the method, but for what? This is like someone who is learning to drive, but never leaves the car park.

In the early days of Lean, organizations would visit Toyota to observe the tools, the methods and the training at first hand. Then when they took these things back and tried to implement them in their own organizations they would wonder why they had difficulty getting them to work. And the reason they didn’t work? Because there had been no attempt to link the methods to specific business problems and outcomes.

What are we seeing? The scaffolding – or the building?

Lean, Agile or SAFe – it is easy to look at a business through the lens of the method instead of looking at the business to determine the most appropriate methods to use. This is like looking at a building, seeing the scaffolding and confusing it for the building itself. The skills in erecting and deploying the scaffolding are different from the skills in constructing the building. When you have erected the scaffolding, your work is still ahead of you.

Mastery of the scaffolding, or the method, is not what makes a business successful. Success is about being good enough at the basic things and combining activities in such a way that the business operates well.

Get this scaffolding issue wrong, and you’ll end up with no building – just a lot of rusting iron that falls apart in a strong wind.

Your building, your scaffolding

Trying to combine one type of method with another can be disastrously counter-productive. Some companies, for example, have attempted to combine Six Sigma with Lean and ended up with nothing more than a Frankenstein’s monster that gives them the worst of both possible worlds.

This is why it so important to keep the problem always to the fore and then adopt the methods and practices that best suit the culture and circumstances of the business. Trying to use somebody else’s scaffolding to construct a building unsuited to the business is madness itself.

Different methods do different jobs and they have been designed to engage people in very different ways. Throw these things together and you end up with a Jurassic Park-style mix of men and dinosaurs.

Due consideration must be given to the type of scaffolding to be used. When we take somebody else’s scaffolding, we take their problems too. And using just one method does not teach us how to make buildings, live in them or renovate them.

Once we are clear on the business problem we are addressing – process, delivery, measurement and so on – we can identify the best combination of methods to address it. For example, if we need to do something across an entire business, Agile would not be the ideal choice, as it is designed for smaller units and it does not work at scale. Lean would be much better suited to these bigger pieces of work, with Agile incorporated within it, if required. There are many such useful combinations that can be made.

Applying methods judiciously is the key to success. In addition, we must move beyond the notion of "operational excellence" because operational excellence alone will not make success. It is more important to be good at creating the right combination of activities.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good

The sheer pace of change in today’s business world has given rise to a new “create, deploy, experiment, replace” improvement cycle in which there can be little time for incremental improvements. Trying to improve things to the level of excellence in this scenario is futile – simply because the shelf life of these improvements will diminish at the same rate at which change increases.

Competing on operational excellence and trying to drive excellence into every part of the business is what is behind the slavish drive for methods. But letting methods become our master is not a good idea – we don’t make good slaves! It is far better to identify the right combination of activities and ensure we are performing them just well enough to beat the competition – and at the same time seek new ways to do things. Or put another way: in a disruptive, fast-changing world, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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