Think INSIDE the box?

Yes. It’s time to think inside the box. Sure, thinking inside the box implies constraints to thinking. But the constraints are good things. The thinking inside the box employs the common sense methods we used to use to solve problems.

Certainly, there were limitations to this thinking. But as we started to accept outside the box thinking, we drifted farther and farther from common sense, tried and true methods. Now it seems business is reaching so far beyond the box that many businesses are unable to get simple things done.

I often see simple solutions clouded with metrics, supply chains, process controls and task forces. These are great tools if used correctly as a power saw is to an experienced carpenter. But most of the time I see these tools adopted by the inexperienced. The tools are sexy. They seem to hold the answers that businesses need, but in the wrong hands these same tools build resentment among the rank and file and slow the progress toward real solutions.

The obsession with metrics, is one such tool. Sure, it is important to measure some things. Agreed. But business has become measurement crazy. What’s is worse, I see bonuses tied to these measurements. That can be okay if the right things are measured, but they rarely are.

Take customer service as an example. Let’s say you decide that “hold time” to your call center is way too long. Waiting for a service representative for long periods of time is upsetting your customers. It’s decided to measure the time used per call. After a month of data collection we clearly see the average call is 20 minutes long. If we reduce the call time average to 15 minutes, the service representatives will take more calls per day and that will reduce the time on hold for each incoming call. We monitor our reps closely and reward the ones with the shortest per call times. We work to correct those reps with the longest per call times. After 6 weeks we’ve cut the hold time for a new caller from 30 minutes to 10 minutes by reducing the time spent per call. That’s a fantastic accomplishment in only 10 weeks—4 weeks to establish the baseline and then 6 weeks to make corrections.

We have the illusion that we have improved our customer service. Everything looks so good on paper. The graphs are beautiful. We see in full color the declining hold time and how nicely it corresponds to declining per call time. The task force has done a terrific job of improving customer service. Right?

No. Customer service doesn’t improve by talking faster or eliminating customer small talk. It does improve, though by very little by reducing hold time. Are the customers happier with the outcome of their calls? Have we reduced the need for customer service in any way? How much did the data collection process cost? And, most importantly, have we contributed profit? Profit is, after all, the most important measurement.

There are two scientific principles that we must never forget. First, not all data are information. Second, just because two things happen at the same time does not mean they are related.

For example. Let’s study the relationship of smoking to cancer. We decide to think outside the box. We look at everything that people diagnosed with cancer consume. Bingo! We make an amazing discovery. Every single person diagnosed with cancer regularly drinks water. Not only that, but they are actually bathing in the stuff on a regular basis. Not every cancer patient is a smoker, but they all drink water and bathe in it. We’ve found the answer, right? Obviously not.

My example is silly but we draw similar conclusions in business all the time. Reducing the hold time to your call center is good thing but it does not improve your customer service.

I believe observation is the key to fixing problems. The simple, inexpensive solutions often contribute the most to gain. Then we can measure what we think is the solution. Too much time and money is being spent measuring problems instead of rolling up the sleeves and fixing things. Why? It’s safer. You can’t blame someone for measuring. And if you choose to measure things that can be manipulated, results are easy to demonstrate. It’s safe. If you propose a common sense change and it doesn’t work? You suffer the humiliation of failure. This is why it becomes so difficult to get participation from the people who have the best ideas. Fear. If you can reduce that element, you gain a basket of new ideas.

I think we need to return to thinking inside the box. We need to get back to basics. We can add innovation to our box. We can add new ideas to our box. But if you get back to the box long left behind, you’ll find some pretty good stuff in there. Stuff like, if you have a problem somewhere in your business, ask the guy closest to the problem if he has any thoughts about solving the problem. He might surprise you. If you want to improve your customer service, ask yourself how you would like the problem resolved if you were the customer. You know the answer. It’s inside the box.

Chris Reich, Author of TeachU’s Business Talk Blog
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