Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Rot of Low Hanging Fruit

Be Careful

We hear it all the time in #changemanagement: “show progress; get quick wins; pick the low hanging fruit!”  Really?

Many years ago I presented this established wisdom to a client and they went ballistic.  The point was simple.  There should never be quick wins.  By definition this means there are easy fixes in plain sight.  Fixes that do not require a change in strategy or business plans.  All that is required is that someone takes action that is obvious.

This idea has stuck with me.  I see evidence of it all the time.  When I go to restaurants I see clip boards with checklists to be sure that windows are cleaned regularly.  Why is there a checklist?  Why should windows be dirty?  Isn’t it everyone’s responsibility to clean a window when it’s needed?

I just finished a major project to improve workflow – to get rid of non-value added transactions.  We found lots of low hanging fruit.  In one case there was a whole cottage industry built to comply with a process control that had long since lost its purpose.  Not respecting the control would have absolutely no impact. 

Seriously, there were dozens of people occupied in the work across many silos.  Although a lot of the paper flow had been automated the final approvals and plans were printed and filed along with an electronic copy for back-up.  Everyone knew the work was a waste of time – but it went on endlessly, and still goes on.

When this and other examples were brought to the senior team the answers were always the same: “Change is difficult because decision authority is fragmented, or it just isn’t worth the hassle to clean up the mess.”

I thought this was interesting.  Today’s managers talk endlessly about simplification and the need to effectively use scarce resources; yet when given the opportunity for quick wins the prize is often seen as not worth the effort.  In a cost-benefit sense this may be true, but what about the mindset it leaves behind?  What about the employees who learn to accept organizational dysfunction, put their heads down, and trudge on?

So, if you're a manager and you find low hanging fruit, remember the low hanging fruit isn’t your real problem – disaffected employees is!

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