Too many good ideas

Lesson Learned #24

Here’s a joke we often hear: Consultants take your watch, tell you what time it is, and then keep your watch.” It’s funny and, like most jokes, it’s at least partially true. There is never a shortage of good ideas in the companies where we work, and we go to great lengths to find them by talking to managers and employees. So if all these good ideas exist, why don’t companies just do them? What we’ve learned is that the problem is not that there is a shortage of good ideas. It is that there are too many.

In every functional area we work in, with the help of managers and employees, we create a large wall-sized map that illustrates all the steps in the current process. Then we give the employees a red pen and ask them to critique the process. “What would they change if they could?” Before long the map looks like some type of contemporary art, with varying sizes and styles of red critiques. It’s the same every time. Problems creep naturally into any process, and over time they accumulate. Employees who have to deal with them every day develop ideas and work-arounds and are a good source for ideas about what could change.

The real challenge is the time it takes to sift through those ideas to determine what impact the change would have; how practical it is; and how much interfunctional co-ordination is required. Out of literally hundreds of ideas we usually end up focusing on less than 10. Sometimes we can help introduce a new method or approach, usually because we’ve seen it done differently in another industry. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a good idea and physically making it work.

So, yes, we often look at someone’s watch and tell them the time, but the joke goes too far when it comes to “keeping the watch”. That rarely happens.