Have you ever noticed how we seem to only use addition, never subtraction? Let me explain. We just keep adding layers, until our lives, personal and professional, look like a game of pickup sticks. When things go wrong, it’s hard to figure out exactly which stick to pick to fix it. We know about the law of diminishing returns; we understand that there is a point where each additional unit of input yields less output than the prior (assuming all other factors are held constant). In the real world though we can’t often hold all factors constant. We deal with dynamic rather than static systems, as we increase inputs it’s difficult to hold everything else constant. As we add new stuff, new steps, new processes we rarely explicitly identify what can stopped. The result is inconsistency, inefficiency, waste.

We have used the “old” way for a long time and we have faith that it will continue working. We have seen how our methods work and there is security in predictability. We tend to distrust new ways, and we resist; our inherent biases hold back progress. We make small, incremental changes, implement better ways in small steps, build on top of our existing foundations. This piecemeal change will often lead to unnecessary complexity, we don’t recognize it when we move past the point of diminishing returns, we don’t fully realize the benefits of improvements, or the reliability that comes with the familiarity and predictability of the old way. We create conflict within our systems, mixing old with new, we are our own enemies.

We need to work to organize the piles of pickup sticks we create. To untangle the spaghetti-like bundle of processes that change in fits and starts.  We need to strip down the layers to increase efficiency.

I recently learned about a system that illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. A major industrial organization has used electromechanical switches that are linked together to ensure automated processes happen in the proper sequence. These switches have been in operation for two to three decades and most of the technicians know how to tear them apart and rebuild them from years of practice. They are big, bulky, use lots of electricity; they are relatively reliable, though when they do break down the out of service time can be extensive and costly.

At some point, the central control centers were modernized with updated digital systems designed to control the overall processing schedule. When the control system was upgraded it would have made sense to implement a completely digital, closed-loop control system; replacing the mechanical pieces with their solid state equivalent; computer chips that drive the binary, on/off process; that would have been more reliable, smaller, more energy efficient, lower cost to replace and not susceptible to mechanical failure.

In this instance, because the technicians are comfortable with the old switches, the digital system was cobbled on top of the existing mechanical system. The technicians and engineers had worked with the existing hardware for so long they they had a built in bias for the old switches. They knew the old equipment inside and out, and they just didn’t trust software; software, to them, was unproven.

The solid-state computer system makes all of the calculations, maps the processes, schedules the flow of production and then sends instructions to electromechanical equipment to implement the final steps. Two systems, not designed or intended to work together, work simultaneously increasing latency and resulting in timing issues. To put it simply, the digital is working on the second step before the mechanical has completed the first. The result is a backlog in the process that requires manual intervention; technicians need to intentionally delay, interrupt the efficiency, of the newer system so the older hardware can catch up. Millions invested in an overhaul with little of the promised benefits realized.

We only add. We never subtract. Let’s fully embrace innovation, when new ways are better let’s stop fighting to keep the old ways. Let’s increase our efficiency. Let’s increase our success.

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