Breaking It

Posted by jlubans on June 19, 2018

As I advanced in my administrative career, I soon learned that the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the rallying call (in my business) among those who abhorred change.
For these traditionalists, if a process took 6 week to complete, then that was good enough. Why try to cut it to 2 weeks or best of all, to one-day?
Besides, without more money for staff and equipment it was not possible. (With that attitude, why would anyone increase their budget?)
What was unstated was their willingness to settle for the mediocre and their unwillingness to exert effort to change for the better.
So, when I was tasked with major reforms in one organization, I rephrased it – earning the eternal enmity of many of my colleagues – to “If it ain’t broke, break it.”
What I was saying was that many of our routines were weighed down through incremental decisions; dragging us down. Starting over would help us eliminate the bottlenecks and backlogs.
I knew that the systems were interrelated so that poor performance in one area harmed performance in another.
Few saw it my way, but those who did, made sweeping changes that turned the organization around.
I probably should have used a different phrase. Like the one I saw in a recent obituary: “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.”
The obituary was for Ella Brennan, the culinary doyenne of Commander’s Palace Restaurant in New Orleans. She was never a chef, (although she knew very well what tasted good) but she hired up-and-coming chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, who made her restaurant a destination for locals and visitors.
Her phrase may have been a better way to communicate to staff than my abrupt and scary (for traditionalists) proposal to break things.
In either case, the phrases gave permission and encouragement to make things better, to improve, to push an idea and process further toward doing it the best way we could.
How can it work better? That’s what I was saying with my “break it” comment.
It is not sufficient to just leave something alone and regard it as “good enough”.
In Russia they have a phrase for this attitude: “Так Cойдёт!” In American English, it’s the equivalent of, “OK, that’s close enough for government work” and implies that shoddy is not all that bad. If a newly installed floor tilts, but all the boards fit together, then OK.
In other words, “It is more or less OK” so let’s go with it. It's passable, middling, not bad, or adequate! Not exactly what you want to hear if you are trying to promote a culture of daily improvement.
You can improve anything but perfection and we don’t, any of us, have to worry about that.
My point is there’s always room for improvement. And Ms. Brennan’s highlighting through weekly brainstorming sessions with staff and expecting improvement from everyone surely helped her business stay among the top five in NOLA.
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© Copyright John Lubans 2018
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