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Rigid systems versus flexible systems

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Rigid systems versus flexible systems

Scott Miker

The other day at work we encountered a problem that required us to completely change the routing systems and processes we use to service our customers.  We repair home medical equipment and have developed numerous routes to pick up broken equipment and return repaired equipment to home care dealers.

Because of some changes with a partner we have gained the potential for a significant increase in the number of stops that we have.  But because the data provided to us is incomplete, we don’t know if the changes will mean extra 2-3 customers per week or 20-30 per week.  In fact, we really don’t know if it means it will be 100-200 more customers that we have to start regularly visiting.

So we started to do some evaluation of our current systems around routing vehicles to customers.  We started to lay out different scenarios and what that would mean to the current system. 

We quickly found that the system we currently have in place is too rigid.  It works great with a set number of customers that we see every other week.  Throw in the occasional change and we have that covered.  But throw in a large number of changes all at once and we have a problem.

It might seem logical then, that we simply need to add more.  The common response to an increase in something is that we simply need to increase the resources around it. 

But there is a problem.  The problem is that the business relies on the efficiencies we have built into the routing structures.  We have fine-tuned the systems to be as effective and efficient as possible. 

So what do we do?

Another response could be to say no.  We could tell our partner that, sorry, we aren’t doing it.  But in this case that option isn’t a good option at all and would do too much harm to the business. 

So we buckled down to think through the issue and come up with ways to handle the changes.  Luckily we all know the systems and processes very well and tend to rely on systems thinking whenever we attack a problem such as this. 

Instead of using linear thinking and deciding to just say no or to just add more resources, we started to think about the full system.  We looked for leverage points, flexible elements and areas we can easily make adjustments to.

What we ended up doing was to address the biggest problem that we found (systematically).  We had built an incredibly efficient, but rigid, system.  The rigidity was developed to give us profitability and we developed a few flexible options for when small changes came to us. 

So instead of blowing it all up, or just trying to brainstorm a possible solution with everyone involved, we focused in on the rigid elements.  We started to dissect our system and found that some of the rigidity could be removed by rearranging the order we did the steps. 

Instead of doing lots of work on the front end to build the routes, we would shift to having those determined towards the end of the process.  We would provide minimal route guidelines and would allow all sorts of changes to occur before we created the rigid route. 

Without getting into all of the details here, we basically attacked the rigid elements and worked to find ways that the system could be turned into a very flexible system.  Flexible systems can be great if they are done properly because we can allow for all sorts of variables without losing all of our efficiencies. 

We already have a flexible system built in that allows us to add a new stop.  But this process was very structured and required a great deal of work each time.  So we used the basic foundation of that system, and changed some elements to make it simpler.  And the best part was that doing this started to give us scalability, along with flexibility. 

If you have a good system or habit in place and find that something is going to change, don’t just blow it up or look for some quick, linear solution.  Think through the full system to find an element that can be leveraged in order to continue making progress towards success.  Doing this might be difficult and require a higher level of thinking, but the results could be an incredible improvement over a system that we thought was great but, in fact, was very flawed.