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5.3 Take Control: Looking for Fixes

The airline’s one-off hiring effort is just one example of a management response to improve performance. There are other common types of response, and it is important to look for and evaluate these in the right order, otherwise you risk undermining one fix by missing unintended consequences:

Minimize Leakages in the Resource System

Many organizations focus on cost-effectively acquiring resources and building them but pay much less attention to keeping them. However, there is little advantage in trying to increase the stock of resources in the system if the organization simply loses them again. Too often, customers are won, only to be lost again by poor products or service; staff are hired and trained, only to leave again for any of a host of reasons; new brands are established, only to become uncompetitive as the excitement of the launch fades; distribution agreements are set up, but stall when the company proves unable to sustain the relationship. Of course, there may be situations where the organization has good reason to reduce resources deliberately: for example, cutting back on sales efforts as you progress toward fully exploiting a market opportunity.

Improve Resource Acquisition and Development

Once you have ensured there are no leaks in your bath, you can think about filling it!

  • Examine each resource inflow, ensuring that other necessary resources, mechanisms, and policies are in place to enable growth. Is the marketing budget sufficient to reach potential customers to make the desired win rate feasible? Is the product’s functionality adequate to win customers and are the production, delivery, and installation resources in place to turn orders into completed sales? Is the hiring and training capacity in place to bring in staff at the rate required and make them productive quickly?
  • Apply the same principle to ensure that existing resources, mechanisms, and policies are in place to allow resource development to occur: turning prototype products into marketable goods, developing sufficient numbers of experienced people, and so on.

Eliminate Self-Imposed Limits

The development of one resource can be hampered by inadequacies in other resources. The team should therefore examine the strategic architecture, focusing on each resource in turn and ascertaining whether its own growth may cause imbalances that restrict its further progress. A valuable question to trigger insight is, “If we are successful in winning these customers (or finding these staff, or launching these products), what are all the things that could go wrong or get in the way?”

Look for Reinforcing Mechanisms to Drive Growth

Only after steps 1 through 3 have been completed should you turn to the tempting task of finding reinforcing mechanisms to drive growth. By this point it should be safe to look for ways in which existing resources can be leveraged to drive their own growth or that of others. Can you, for example, leverage existing customers and your resulting reputation to drive faster acquisition of further new customers or to increase your ability to hire the best people?

Evaluate Step Solutions to Shift the System to a New State

In cases where resource limits and imbalances are serious, it may be impractical or take too long to grow, develop, or reduce the necessary resources. Instead, step changes may be appropriate. These may be limited to actions in a single part of the business or affect many resources simultaneously:

  • Action may be needed to bring a single resource into line with the rest of the system, either as it is or as it is planned to become. Signing up a large new dealership can provide rapid access to a new customer base; licensing products from other firms can quickly fill out a weak product range; and taking on contractors can rapidly relieve staff pressure. Beware, though: Such actions may themselves place new demands on the organization, so make sure they can be absorbed.
  • Larger actions may be required to take the business to a whole new level, with better balance and stronger growth potential. Acquisition is one of the clearest examples of such a shift for the whole organization and featured strongly, for example, in the growth of Blockbuster Inc. in its drive to become the dominant movie rental business in the United States and other countries. Each acquisition brought a bucket full of new stores, new customers, and new staff, which were assimilated into the established Blockbuster system. On the other hand, rationalization of several parts of a system may be necessary to bring an ineffective organization back to a core of activity that can be sustained into the future. This may entail rationalizing the product range, removing poor-quality customers, reducing capacity, and cutting staff, all in a coherent move over a short period.

Although step solutions are hardly a new approach to improving an organization’s performance, a sound architecture of the situation will provide important safeguards for their implementation. Above all, the rest of the system needs to able to absorb the new or increased resource. It may be necessary to develop complementary resources, or at least start them on an increasing trajectory so that they quickly become able to cope with the influx. Without such precautions, the very solution itself may trigger some new resource losses that undermine your hoped-for improvement.

It is common, for example, for staff to resign after new people arrive. Losses may also arise among other resource categories: For example, inward licensing of new products may cause product development staff to become disillusioned and resign, and the opening of new direct customer relationships may cause dealers to defect to rivals.