The following analogy popped up the other day in an email discussion with a friend.
Running a business is a bit like being the Fat Controller, running his vast train network. We spend our time trying to get the trains to run on time with the all too often distraction of digging the Troublesome Trucks out of trouble.
Improvement often means upgrading the tracks to create smoother, straighter lines. After years of doing this, any improvement to the tracks can only provide a minor, incremental benefit.
What we really need is a new signalling system. We need to better utilise the tracks we already have, and this means making better decisions about which trains to run where, and better coordination between the trains. Our tracks are fine (as long as we keep up the scheduled maintenance), but we do need to better manage transit across and between them.
Swap processes for tracks, and I think that this paints quite a nice visual picture.
Years of processes improvement (via LEAN, Six Sigma and, more recently, BPM) had straightened and smoothed our processes to the point that any additional investment has hit the law of diminishing returns. Rather than continue to try and improve the processes on my own, I’d outsource process maintenance to a collection of SaaS and BPO providers.
The greater scale of these providers allows them to invest in improvements which I don’t have the time or money for. Handing over responsibility also creates the time and space for me to focus on improving the decisions on which process to run where, and when: my signalling system.
This is especially important in a world where it is becoming rare to even own the processes these days.
We forget just how important a good signalling system is. Get it right and you get the German or Japanese train networks. Get it wrong and you rapidly descend into the second or third world, regardless of the quality of your tracks.