Back in the 19th century, the US was primarily a rural nation. In those days, if you wanted to purchase something, you didn’t have all the malls with all the stores nearby like we have today. Instead, if you needed something, you got out your Sears or Montgomery Ward paper catalog and ordered what you needed by mail. Then, a few weeks later, the mailman would deliver to you what you ordered.
Not only weren’t there many stores back then, there weren’t many ways to pay for the things you bought. No credit cards or PayPal existed. Only the very rich had checking accounts. As a result, almost everything was paid for in advance with cash—usually with coins.
This caused a problem for Sears and Montgomery Ward. Thousands upon thousands of orders would come to them by mail—each of them in envelopes filled with coins. Trying to figure out if the right amount of coins were in the envelope to match the cost of the order was a logistical and financial nightmare.
Sears eventually came up with a way to simplify the process. In fact, they eliminated the process. Instead of counting the money, they weighed the money. As it turns out, Sears discovered three things:
1) The vast majority of people are honest about putting in the right amount of coins;
2) You can get a reasonable (but not exact) estimate of the value of a pile of coins by weighing them; and
3) Weighing coins is a lot faster, easier and cheaper than counting them.
By switching from counting to weighing, Sears could process the orders faster with a lot fewer employees. The big shortages of money would still be caught. And whatever little shortages that slipped through were small and infrequent. The money saved from not counting more than made up for any losses from shortages in payment.
So everybody won. The consumers got their orders processed faster and Sears made the process more profitable.
Sears could have spent a lot of time and money to perfect the system of counting all those coins. And I’m sure they could have made significant improvements to the money counting process. But I’m also sure that those improvements would never have been as cost efficient as abandoning the process altogether to switch to weighing money.
At first, it seems counter-intuitive to say that profitability goes up when you stop accurately checking to see if you were properly paid. How could a company like Sears stop counting its payments?
Well, as it turns out, the top line on the income statement is not the most important line. The long-term prospects for the bottom line are far more important. If a little less accuracy on the top line can create far more money on the bottom line, then we should be happy with that. (and, by the way, Sears eventually knew the exact total of all coinage coming in—even if they couldn’t tell which order the coins came from).
I bring this up because a lot of businesses are focused on increasing accuracy all over the place. Using a host of processes like Six Sigma or Lean, a great deal of time and effort is used to gather tons of data to figure out how to do things better or faster or cheaper or with fewer defects all over the company.
These practices may improve the individual areas being studied. But, like Sears, perhaps even more improvement to the consolidated bottom line would have occurred if the study had not occurred and the process was entirely eliminated.
Precision and improved performance is not always the right answer for every process. Sometimes, the bigger picture is better served when some processes stay a little looser or are eliminated altogether. The secret is in knowing when to apply these tools and when not to.
The principle here has to do with the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency is about focusing on making a process operate as well as possible (speed, cost, accuracy, etc.). Effectiveness is about focusing on doing those things most critical to long-term success (pleasing customers, gaining competitive advantage, improving long-term cash flow, etc.).
The Folly of Putting Efficiency Ahead of EffectivenessThe difference between a focus on efficiency or accuracy can be great. For example, I could create the most efficient process for sending messages in Morse Code, but that would never be a more effective way of communication when compared to smartphones and the internet. If the end goal is communication, I should abandon the Mosrse Code and adopt smartphones and the internet.
Focusing on perfecting Morse Code while ignoring smartphones may seem silly, but companies do things almost as silly all the time.
Most companies never really have an adequate answer to what I call “The Most Important Question,” which is: What is it about your business strategy which would cause customers to naturally prefer you over the alternatives? In other words, they have never figured out what will make the company uniquely effective in the marketplace.
Instead, they do pretty much what everyone else in the field is doing. They offer essentially the same solution in the same way. Then the hope is that they can eke out a small advantage by doing the whole thing just a little bit better. So, they use tools like six sigma and lean in an attempt to make everything they do a little more efficient than the competition.
The problem with this approach is that:
1) Perfecting the status quo does you no good when the status quo becomes obsolete (like when smartphones and other communication tools made Morse Code obsolete). Being the best obsolete alternative is not much to brag about.
2) The competition rarely stands still. They are also trying to become more efficient. As a result, it is difficult to get a meaningful long term advantage in doing what everyone else does just a little better. Think of the battle between Fuji and Kodak to become the best at producing photographic film. They alternated having small temporary advantages until digital technology made both of them obsolete (see more here).
3) If you don’t start first with understanding what is most critical for effectiveness, you have no way to prioritize what efficiencies to work on. In addition, you don’t know which approach is best to improve them (is it by reducing costs, reducing defects, saving time or something else?). As a result, you can end up working on the wrong projects (like improving money counting instead of moving to a less accurate process of money weighing).
The irony is that putting efficiency first is not the most efficient way to improve your long-term prospects. It wastes a lot of effort on doing things that do not meaningfully improve the really important things, such as winning in the marketplace.
The Benefits of Putting Effectiveness FirstTrue, lasting efficiency only comes when effectiveness is given top priority. Effectiveness focuses on finding a way to win. That “way to win” involves understanding the underlying problem you are trying to solve (your solution) and differentiating attributes where you will excel in order to be the best at that solution.
For example, Wal-Mart’s solution is to improve the lives of lower income people by making the things of life more affordable. The differentiating attributes they focus on are lowest cost and lowest price. Wal-Mart doesn’t waste a lot of effort perfecting service or luxury, because that focus won’t improve their ability to win with their strategy. Instead, they place all of that efficiency and perfection emphasis in areas which lower costs and lower prices. And Wal-Mart didn’t stop at just trying to perfect the status quo discount store. When they discovered that supercenters were a more effective way to solve their problem, they quickly made the switch.
The key to strategy execution is knowing which trade-offs to make. It is virtually impossible to be the best at everything. If you try to simultaneously be best at low prices, high quality, speed, service and innovation, you will probably end up being inferior to someone on all of these attributes. No, if you want to be meaningfully superior, you have to focus on only a couple of attributes. You trade off (do less) in the areas less important to your effectiveness so that you can afford to trade on (do more) in the areas critical to your effectiveness.
Starting with effectiveness lets you know where to prioritize you efficiency efforts. And it lets you know which aspect of efficiency (speed, price, etc.) to focus on. And, most importantly, it lets you know where not to direct your efficiency efforts. And, finally, it keeps an eye open for non-status quo approaches which are more effective at solving the underlying problem. This provides an effective way to win year after year after year.
If you focus too hard on trying to be perfectly efficient at everything you do:
1) You can end up never winning superiority at any attribute relative to competition (because your efforts are dissipated over too many conflicting areas); and/or
2) You end up perfecting the obsolete.
However, if the primary focus is first on being effective at owning a solution, you will know how to make the right trade-offs, so that you can become perfectly efficient in the places necessary for you to win in the marketplace.
Tools like Six Sigma and Lean should not be looked at as substitutes for strategy (or as being your strategy). No, they are merely tools. Tools in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Tools in the right hands can produce great things. If you want those tools to do great things, you need to first understand your effectiveness strategy. This provides the context for knowing where and how to apply those tools.