Why We Seem Incapable Of Fixing Things Before They Break


Friday, 7.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire. […] Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is. – Greta Thunberg

One assumes that you are aware of the issue of climate change – and you are also aware of the news stories about how young people are asking for something to be done about it all.

It’s a reasonable question that they have, really. Why aren’t you doing more?

You older people, that is – the ones with the power and the money and the responsibility – the ones who can make things happen.

We older people…

Is it unwillingness or inability?

The thing is that the whole issue falls into a general class of problem to do with change.

Let’s say you’re driving a car and you see on the overhead signs that there is a lane closed ahead, at what point do you change lanes?

Few people pull over immediately – most carry on.

Some start to pull over as they see other cars doing so.

And some wait till they can see the lights flashing or the line of cones appearing that warns of the closure ahead.

And a few wait till the very end, coming to a complete halt at the end of the road before attempting to change lanes.

We’re just not wired, it seems, to fix things before they break.

So, I thought it might be interesting to ask why that’s the case – but it seems hard to find an answer.

One possible answer is in a paper called Nobody ever gets credit for fixing problems that never happened: Creating and sustaining process improvement by Nelson Repenning and John Sterman.

They use a systems dynamics model to explore what happens – and this is shown in the picture above.

In a systems model, then you can think through six steps.

1. Actual performance comes from capability and time

You can think of capability as a stock – a quantity that you can add to or lose by investing in it or simply allowing it to erode, for example by losing people through resignations or retirement.

How you do at anything you’re working on depends on two things – the capability you have and the time you spend.

The combination of these results in actual performance.

So then you can look at the performance gap – the gap between desired performance and actual performance.

A change in the desired performance widens the performance gap while a change in the actual performance can reduce it.

2. Spending time on improvement increases capability

The next obvious insight is that spending time looking at how you do things and trying to find ways to do them better increases your capability.

If you study your processes and do things with less materials, less energy or fewer people, you become more effective, more efficient and more capable.

But, it doesn’t happen at once – you first experience delays as you take the winding roads and wrong turns before you learn how to do things better.

This delay is quite important – we’ll come back to it later.

3. Improve performance by working harder

You can get a boost in performance by spending more time on the job.

If you work 40 hours a week, then work 50, or 60 or 200 hours a week.

Whatever it takes to get the job done.

Ah… there are only 168 hours in a week – so you’re going to max out at that limit.

Except, if you work 24 hours a day for two weeks you’re probably going to be unable to do much more work for a while.

So working harder boosts performance but often only in the short term – and you often sink below the original level as people and machines burn out.

4. Improve performance by working smarter

Working smarter means putting pressure on people to get better at what they do – to improve capability.

This means they have to spend more time on improvement work.

Which in turn improves capability – not immediately, but over time.

But people don’t like to wait or are uncomfortable with the idea that they might not get a result – or at least not the same kind of immediate result they get by just working harder.

5. The pressure to work harder takes time away from improvement work

When you ask people to work harder, they stop doing less important stuff – like maintenance and improvement.

In a sense they reinvest in doing less improvement – and so things start getting worse again.

6. Start taking shortcuts

At which point, people start taking shortcuts – hiding things, cutting corners or doing the minimum.

In effect they trade short term performance for long term maintenance.

But, as you’ve guessed by now, this also eventually causes problems as the shortcuts mean machines fail, documentation is non-existent and training gets cancelled.

The only way is to take the time

The only long term sustainable solution is to take the time to improve capability – and accept that there will be a delay before things improve.

If you start a business right now – accept that it could be three years before you invoice your first client.

Accept that if you start a sales and marketing program now it could be three years before your pipeline looks healthy.

And accept that if you want to reduce the amount of carbon you emit, it could be three years before you see a statistically significant reduction.

Or it could be longer.

The point is that just saying that we are going to reach a point of no-return in a year is not enough.

If that is the case, we’re going to have to learn to live with that new normal.

What we can do is start to work towards long-term change, by improving the way in which we live on the planet.

Because here’s the thing – the planet really doesn’t care whether you exist or not.

If you accept the Gaia hypothesis, the Earth will find a way to self-regulate itself – perhaps by creating conditions where humans cannot live.

Or, it could just stop being able to support life at all – become just another rock in space.

The fact is that humans have to act smarter – together.

Can we?


Karthik Suresh

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