Success Can Be Dangerous

By on June 7, 2017
Success Can Be Dangerous

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” How many times have you heard this comment? If you’re like me, you’ve heard it too often. And why do so many people say it? In my opinion it’s because all human beings, folks like you and me, gravitate to comfort zones. And if the comfort zones in which we operate are particularly attractive ones, to suggest that we should move out of them strikes many of us as nonsense.

The history of manufacturing is replete with examples of this phenomenon.

In the mid-90s, General Motor was making a lot of money on SUVs. If anyone had told them that by 2009 they would have to be bailed out by the federal government in order to remain in business, they would have told that person they were crazy. “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

In 1968 IBM was flying high. In that same year, Robert Lloyd, an engineer in IBM’s Advanced Systems Division, reacting to colleagues who insisted the microprocessor was the wave of the future said, “What the hell is it good for?” Early in the 1980s, IBMers I knew routinely disparaged upstarts like Apple, saying that they were a fad that would quickly fade away. Apple’s gross revenue in 2016 was $233 billion and IBM’s $80 billion. “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

In 1986, Kodak’s film business was thriving. In that same year, they developed the first mega-pixel digital camera. In 1989, their newly appointed CEO, Kay Whitmore, said that he would make sure that Kodak stayed close to its core businesses in film and photographic chemicals. On January 19, 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

I assume we’d all concede that General Motors, IBM, and Kodak got far too comfortable with the status quo. That’s obvious. Not so obvious is what forces put blinders on their leadership teams that resulted, in the case of General Motors and Kodak, their teetering on the edge of going out of business, and, in the case of IBM, losing significant traction in their marketplace. What made it so difficult for General Motors, IBM, and Kodak to move out of their comfort zones? And moving beyond these three, what makes it so difficult for many companies and their leaders to move out of their comfort zones?

Here’s my take on this issue. To put it simply, I believe that when things are going smoothly and a lot of money is being made, we start to believe that today will last forever. It won’t.

Further, when things are going smoothly and a lot of money is being made, we start to believe that nothing is broken. It is. In fact, everything is broken.

To state these two observations in less apocalyptic terms, today’s solutions will never be equal to tomorrow’s challenges and everything we do is imperfect, i.e. broken.

So what does it take for an organization to have the vision, drive, and agility needed to continually reshape itself in order to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s highly volatile marketplace?

Here’s what it takes. It takes Lean manufacturing. Lean manufacturing creates the type of agile, energized, and engaged workforce needed to drive a company from success to success with no potentially fatal detours.

And what are the beliefs that are at the core of Lean manufacturing? Here they are:

  • All work processes are imperfect.
  • Because all work processes are imperfect, we should be profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo.
  • If you want to know how to improve work processes, talk to the people who do the work.

The Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College has developed a well-tested and proven method of putting the power of Lean manufacturing to work for an organization. Here it is:

Driving the Implementation of a Sustainable Lean Transformation

I’d appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you to discuss ways in which your company could develop the type of agility needed to avoid the challenges posed by success. You can reach me, George Friesen, any time at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk. I’m confident you’ll find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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