I came across a story recently that set me thinking.
A quality management consultant was visiting a small and old English manufacturing company. He was there to advise on improving their operating efficiency. The consultant was reviewing a particular daily report which dealt with aspects of productivity, absentee rates, machine failure, downtime, etc.
The report was completed manually and was several generations away from the original master-copy, so its headings and descriptions were quite difficult to understand. The photocopied forms were particularly fuzzy at the top-right corner, where a small box had a heading that was not clear at all.
The consultant was interested to note that the figure ‘0’ had been written in every daily report for the past year. On questioning the members of staff who completed the report, they told him that they always put a zero in that box. When he asked them why they looked at each other blankly. “Hmmm… I’m not sure about that,” they each said, “I guess we’ve just always done it that way.”
Intrigued, the consultant visited the archives to see if he could find a clearer form, to discover what was originally being reported and whether it actually held any significance. When he found the old reports, he saw that writing zero had continued uninterrupted for as far back as the records extended – at least the past fifty years – but none of the forms was any clearer than those presently in use.
A little frustrated, he packed away the old papers and turned to leave the room, but something caught his eye. In another box, he noticed a folder, promisingly titled ‘master forms’. And inside it, he found the original daily report pro forma master-copy, in pristine condition.
In the top right corner was the mysterious box, with the heading clearly shown… ‘Number of Air Raids Today’.
This story illustrates an idea known as organizational debt. Organizational debt is the legacy left behind from old practices that we follow without questioning their relevance. It has set me thinking about what we do at work and why we do it. It has also set me to ask the question, "Can we do better?"
How is organizational debt hurting your business?