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Got a match?

Matches aren’t quite so prevalent these days, but back in the day, they were; and back in the day, they were a problem.

The way that problem was solved provides a spectacular lesson for leaders of organizations.

The matchbook was widely used in the early 1900s.   People would detach a single match, put the match head in between the cover and the striking surface, and pull the match out; the friction thus igniting the match head. A problem started to become apparent: with alarming frequency, the spark igniting the one match inadvertently lit all the other matches in the book.  Yikes!  Clearly, this was not good!

Eventually, a corrective action was implemented; the “close cover before striking” phrase was printed on the matchbook cover, educating the user and raising the awareness of the potential issue.

Problem solved.

Not so fast … this corrective action did reduce the frequency of the entire matchbook going up in flames in people’s hands, but, as usage continued to grow, there remained an unacceptably high number of incidents.

Why?  Because this “solution” assumed that the user was able to read and understand the instruction; furthermore, it required the user to act in response to the instruction.

Any “solution” that requires understanding and compliance will inevitably have an error rate.  Some people will not understand; some people, while understanding, will not comply.  While sometimes unavoidable, often, a better answer can be found.  A dissolution; an elegant answer that dissolves the problem.

An elegant dissolution was eventually found.

Do you have a book of matches lying around?  Or just scroll back up to that matchbook picture; do you see the elegant dissolution?

The matchbook was redesigned by moving the abrasive striking surface to the back of the matchbook instead of the front. 

That simple redesign did the trick!  The redesigned matchbook did not require the user to read, understand, or comply to anything.  The problem went away, completely, entirely.    Problem dissolved.

I can hear your SO WHAT? ringing in my ears … Perhaps a real live business example is in order.

During an executive culture-building session with associates several years back, one hourly participant related the situation of store associates needing to clock out for lunch by using the cash register on the sales floor.  After clocking out and while walking through the store to the lunch room, customers often ask these associates for assistance, which takes time away from their lunch break.  This was a problem, since many associates did not want to give up even a minute or two of their earned break; they often were not very helpful to the customer asking for assistance.

The executive emphasized the cultural value of Focus on the Customer, and talked about staying committed, true and consistent with that value, and therefore helping the customer regardless of the fact that the associate had already clocked out.

“Close cover before striking.”

Requires compliance to be effective.  And self-sacrifice to boot!  We would expect far less than 100% compliance… implying poor customer service…

I suspect you already know what the elegant dissolution would have been — relocate the clock out computer off the sales floor!

(I again hear your voice in my head: “Why was the clock out computer on the sales floor in the first place!”… comment if you know or keep a watch on the comments if you want to know… I don’t want to force everyone deeper down the rabbit hole!)

Future posts will drive more into this dynamic, so to not extend this post too much further, the spectacular lesson is that structure drives behavior

It is in leaders’ DNA to attribute performance problems to people, with the resulting corrective actions revolving around training and performance management.

“Close cover before striking.”

Instead, leaders would be much better served by asking: “What factors are causing people to have that problem?”  Which will lead to …

… elegant dissolutions!

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