Traditional MBA programs are built on that desire; on the belief that the behaviours that constitute good management can be learned and repeated in any context. Those programs suggest, by making management a discipline, that if you get the basic skills down, you can manage a retail business or a bank or a restaurant, each with equal success.
The trouble is, it just isn’t true. But it seems that the desire to create reproducible systems is powerful. A powerful myth.
The E-myth, by Michael Gerber, pushes that message: that the biggest failing of small businesses is that they have no formal systems. The role of these formal systems is to allow the owner to exit themselves from the daily running of the business, to ensure cost-effective workforce-building, and to make expansion (like franchising) possible.
In Lean Manufacturing’s Oversized Claims, in October 2011’s Canadian Business, similar ideas are examined. The article explores the validity of the claim that systems like Six Sigma can consistently and sustainably reduce costs simply on the basis of a perfectly executed system.
In each case there is the underlying assumption that if you could just figure out a perfect system you could do away with people, or at least highly trained, hard to replace, expensive people.
While I agree that betting the success of your business on recruiting the perfect talent is a strategy guaranteed to produce an early and unhappy end, the opposite is just as deadly.
Systems matter, but people matter more. The “best” systems are nothing more than Platonic ideals, more philosophy than business strategy, and in the case of Lean systems like Six Sigma or Kaizen, are almost religious cults.
I will drive my stake into this territory:
- No production or performance system is universally applicable across every industry or environment without being modified to the point of threatening the integrity of the original system (i.e. is XYZ Pure System still XYZ Pure System after 50% of it has been modified and made conditional?).
- No production or performance system is a perpetual motion machine. That is, it cannot operate well without reasonable talent, and cannot produce remarkable results without remarkable talent. The human talent and buy-in are non-negotiable inputs for success.
What is the right mix of people and systems in a business?
Simple: it’s the great performance mix. Not the “high performance” kind of performance. The performing art kind of performance.
Every trained actor, musician, and director understands this intuitively. They work with scripts, scores, or chord changes that are meticulously noted systems. The score of a Mahler Symphony is a notated system of an order of complexity that no Six Sigma company in the world can hope to duplicate: tens of thousands of discrete actions, notated in absolutely precise detail. Yet they are pure noise in the hands of the wrong people (and a sublime experience in the hands of great talent).
Note that the reverse is true: the world’s greatest symphony orchestra, asked to perform without score or direction, would produce noise. The system is necessary, but to assume it can every be so perfectly designed as to obviate the need for anything more than minimal talent, is understood to be ludicrous in the performing arts. So why do we perpetuate that myth in business?
Take a page from the performing arts:
- Create the best system you can. Tailor it precisely to your vision, your audience, your times, your genre (or industry). There is NO one-size-fits-all score or script (well there is, but unless you want your company to be know as the elevator music of your industry, not a good idea). This is the score or script for your performance. Get it right.
- Invest in talent development. Hiring a superstar is occasionally a good strategy. But not very often. It is more cost-effective, and brings much greater benefits to find people with great raw talent but only just enough experience, and invest in training them. Do it right and they will invest in your performance. The greatest ensembles have been playing together for decades. A healthy symphony orchestra has a turn-over of less than 3%. We can learn from that.
- Practice, practice, practice. Neither good systems, nor great talent, are any replacement for putting in the hours to get it right. That is another lesson we can learn from the performing arts: it is expected in the process of creating a great performance you are going to make a lot of mistakes. Do it again. And then, when you have it right, do it ten more times. Having a great script and great talent are never enough. Even the very best put in the hours. Musicians, actors, and athletes live with this. Why do people in business think they are exempt?
I help businesses and organizations get the mix right. People and systems working together to produce remarkable results. Check out my website to learn about the different ways I can support your organization.
There’s more! Looking for success in your small business? Read my Small Business blog at Small Business Fundamentals (www.smbfundamentals.com).
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