If each part of a system, considered separately, is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. – Russell Ackoff
You have probably heard the term “no-brainer” used to describe a situation every once in a while.
Some things are obviously the right thing to do.
For example, if you want to get from one city to another on the motorway the obvious thing to do is go as fast as you’re allowed to go – maybe a tiny bit over.
Not so much that you get in trouble but just enough so you get there earlier.
But is this actually the case? Will maximising one element of your journey give you the result you want?
It turns out that doesn’t really work.
The quote by Ackoff that starts this post tells us something that is often no longer intuitive.
What should you do if you want to increase sales leads?
That’s obvious – spend more time on the phone dialling numbers.
But is that really the case?
Might you be better off spending less time on the phone and more time doing research so you call the right people in the first place?
Ackoff says that the proof of his statement is long and complex but you can work it out for yourself with a simple thought experiment.
Let’s say you want to build the best car in the world.
Get a big warehouse and collect all the cars you think are already very good.
Now, pick the one with the best engine.
Find the one with the best braking system.
And the one with the best gearbox.
Keep doing this until you have the best component from every car.
Now put all those components together to create a brand new car.
This one is going to be better than all the others.
Clearly, it won’t. You’ll be lucky if it starts and moves because many of the components won’t fit together in the first place.
The point is that you won’t get the best performance by selecting the best parts individually.
But this is a mistake we make again and again in organisations.
We focus on one element of performance and look to maximise that.
The NHS, for example, tries to push down waiting times.
Websites try and maximise hits.
Influencers try and maximise followers.
But, you ask, what else can you do to improve a system other than to focus on the parts that make it up?
And that’s a reasonable question – but the answer is that you don’t need to optimise the parts but optimise the system and that might mean some of the parts are not run in an optimal way – but that’s ok.
This can seem complicated.
The thing with optimising a system is that you need to start not with what a system does but what it does for.
Does versus does for. What?
Let’s look at an example.
If you’re a company delivering a service to a customer what do you think constitutes quality?
Is it on-time delivery? Is it minimal packaging? Is it the length of the guarantee?
All these are parts of the company system – elements that can be measured and monitored and improved.
But none of them constitute quality.
Quality is, instead, something that emerges from the experience the customer has – when what you give them exceeds their expectations and delights them.
In other words, what determines quality is how the customer feels about you.
So, when you work backwards from the customer instead of outwards from you something interesting happens.
Take on-time delivery, for example.
You pride yourself on how on-time your delivery is. If you say it will come in seven days it comes in seven days.
Amazon, on the other hand, promises to deliver in five days and gets it to you in two.
They exceed your expectations, get your business and destroy the competition.
Now, that’s quality.
From one point of view anyway.
The larger you get the easier it is to manage by metrics because you can measure them and manipulate them.
But the only thing that matters – if you’re trying to deliver a quality service anyway – is how you make things better for your customer.