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The Low-Tech, High-Touch, Experimental Approach to Business Improvement

Hold off on the immediate leap into technology solutions to lift business performance faster and with less risk.

The team at Expert Toolkit see all too often businesses take the "quick plunge" into a large technology-based solution to fix a business problem. The urge to buy a new piece of software, take on a big implementation, utilize a new shiny widget seems to have a magnetic, irresistible draw at times. Perhaps it is the excitement, the challenge, ambition to be the pioneer, the innovator. The temptation to commit to a solution before the problem and options have been fully explored can be too, well, tempting. The "big bang" technology solution looks ideal, benefits exactly as needed (hoped for!) and risks (at least the ones we are know about) look manageable.

The Current State

But, before proceeding vigorously into that big technology investment, take a moment to reflect on what's actually known about the situation and the problem. Does everyone really (quantifiably) understand the problem? Are the root causes clear? Is it clear what business metrics are being impacted? Has an quantified baseline been captured so that everyone is looking at the same picture of current performance? Is it clear what measures would move if things did improve? By what level would things need to improve to be in line with business objectives? What's it worth to the business to take those metrics from their current level to target level?

What's been tried?

Once the current state is clearly understood, think about the options that lay ahead. Has the organization tried to solve the problem in a low cost, minimal risk manner first? Has any solution experimentation, “testing and learning” been conducted to evaluate what might work and if there are any unintended consequences on other performance measures? Have any prototypes been utilized to gain confidence and understand the risks of employing specific solution strategies?

The time and energy invested in experimenting with cheaper approaches will vastly enhance the understanding of the problem which will allow much greater clarity around what's needed – leading to a much better outcome, with less risk.

When things go wrong

When large technology investments go wrong the underlying root cause is almost always due to a lack of true, shared understanding of the problem and the risks (and implications) associated with the solution strategy being adopted. Also, once the journey commences, it is very hard to turn around and walk back through the door that was entered. Various cognitive biases kick into gear and there is typically a huge inertia pulling the program forward to maintain consistency with publicly declared commitments, even though significant obstacles have been encountered and unexpected risks have materialized (with no plan for mitigation)

Perhaps the high availability of extremely powerful technology solutions has influenced thinking of what an innovative solution looks like? Perhaps skills in solving problems without "big T" technology have diminished? It's difficult to say. What does appear to be clear is companies the worldover are missing the opportunity to drive major business improvement in a way that minimizes significant financial and business risk.

An example

Recently some of the team at Expert Toolkit had the opportunity to work with an organization to deliver a significant improvement in business performance with a clear constraint from the outset - "we have no money or time for a significant investment in technology to help here". Using a variety of methods (many described on this site - including visual management, brown paper process mapping, value stream mapping) we worked with the organization to improve productivity by 50% all while lifting customer satisfaction by over 10 points and reducing cycle times by 30%. On reflection, the "capital constraint" helped significantly - it forced everyone to think about the problem differently, look at the process and people dimensions, explore alternative approaches, all the while “testing and learning, testing and learning”.

So before you or your client launches into that major technology investment,

  • Ensure there absolutely is a shared (quantifiable) understanding of the problem trying to be solved and objectives being sought.
  • Ensure that lost cost, low-tech, "test and learn" solutions have been evaluated where practical.

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