Saturday, April 7, 2012

Monuments, Sacred Cows, and Measurability

The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, the Great Pyramid of Giza...what do they all have in common?  They are all monuments.  What do monuments have in common?  They stay put.  

Because they are monuments, we expect to find them where they are, as they are, for centuries to come.  Monuments don't move (I'm not counting the London Bridge).  Monuments don't change much either.  And for the most part, we don't want them to move or change.

The London Bridge enjoying retirement in Lake Havasu City, Arizona
But what do we do with a monument when it blocks much-needed progress?

I ask this question not because I think the Taj Majal needs to be moved down the street to make way for a freeway or anything, but because we encounter monuments everyday in the business world.  In this context, the term 'monument' refers to something that is looked at as immobile, unchangeable, or sacrosanct.

In manufacturing, an example of a monument is a big piece of equipment that can't be moved because it physically can't fit anywhere else.  In healthcare, an example might be a department or program that will not change its processes because it has been deemed a "Sacred Cow" that is not to be bothered.

So how do we deal with these monuments when they block much-needed progress?

Dealing with monuments after the fact can be problematic.  Once something comes to be viewed as inviolable, we start to use terms like "act of Congress" to describe what it would take to change it.  Not good.  We need to prevent monuments from being erected in the first place.  

For a physical monument, like a big piece of equipment, prevention can be achieved by simply not purchasing it, or maybe by purchasing smaller, more flexible alternatives.  However, for an intangible monument, like a Sacred Cow department or program, the situation is more nuanced.  In this scenario, prevention can be achieved by incorporating the concept of measurability into our management decisions. 

Just to be clear, I'm not a person who believes the adage that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it."  Not everything that is important is measurable.  And I prefer facts over data, so I'm not saying we should go hardcore Six Sigma and attach a metric to every activity in the organization just for the sake of having more data.  

I'm just saying that, all things being equal, it's better to be able to measure something than to not, because in the absence of measurability, personal influence and persuasiveness rule the day.  That's how you end up with Sacred Cow monuments that long outlive their usefulness and block progress.

For that reason, I'd go with an option that may not be quite as good but that is measurable over an option that maybe be a little better but immeasurable.  But I'm not sure many management teams would go along with that.  We're just too hardwired to look at the available options and make the best choice based on the evidence on-hand at the moment.  That's why we have a lot of problematic monuments in our organizations.