There is in the human soul a desire for reproducibility. Not reproduction (we have that for sure!), but a need to repeat things, behaviours, and processes, perfectly and and scalably.
Traditional MBA programs are built on that belief: the behaviours that constitute good management can be learned and reproduced in any context. Those programs suggest by making management a discipline, if the necessary skills are mastered, anyone can manage a retail business or a bank or a restaurant with equal success. The person, and the context are irrelevant. It is the quality of the system that creates repeatability and determines success.
The trouble is it isn't true.
But it seems that the desire to create reproducible systems independent of person or context is a powerful myth.
The E-myth, by Michael Gerber, pushes that message: that the biggest failing of small businesses is that they have no formal systems. The role of these formal systems is to allow the owner to exit from the daily running of the business to focus on cost-effective workforce-building, and to make expansion (like franchising) possible.
In Lean Manufacturing’s Oversized Claims (Canadian Business), similar ideas are examined. The article explores the validity of the claim that systems like Six Sigma can consistently and sustainably reduce costs simply on the basis of a perfectly executed system.
In each case there is the underlying assumption that if you could just figure out a perfect system, context becomes irrelevant and you could do away with people, or at least highly trained, hard to replace, expensive, people.
Growing a business solely on your own efforts (owner-scale businesses) or on recruiting the perfect talent is a strategy guaranteed to produce an early and unhappy end. But the opposite is just as deadly. No formal system will ever succeed independent of context or people.
Systems matter, but people matter more. The “best” systems are nothing more than Platonic ideals, more philosophy than strategy, and in the case of Lean systems like Six Sigma or Kaizen, are sometimes religious cults.
I will drive my stake into this territory:
- No production or performance system is universally applicable across every industry or environment without being modified to the point of breaking down the integrity of the original system (i.e. XYZ Pure System is NOT XYZ Pure System after 50% of it has been modified and made conditional).
- No production or performance system is a perpetual motion machine. It cannot produce remarkable results without remarkable talent. Human talent and buy-in are non-negotiable inputs for success.
What is the right mix of people and systems in a business?
Simple: it’s the great performance mix. Not just “high performance”, but the performing arts kind of performance.
Every trained actor, musician, and director understands this. They work with scripts, scores, or chord changes that are meticulously noted systems. The score of a Mahler Symphony is a notated system of an order of complexity that no Six Sigma company in the world can hope to duplicate: tens of thousands of discrete actions, notated in absolutely precise detail. Yet they are pure noise in the hands of the wrong people (and a sublime experience in the hands of great talent).
Note that the reverse is true: the world’s greatest symphony orchestra, asked to perform without score or direction, would also produce noise.
The system is necessary, but to assume it can every be so perfectly designed as to obviate the need for talent, or function across all contexts, is understood to be ludicrous in the performing arts. So why do we perpetuate that myth in business?
Take a page from the performing arts:
- Create the best system you can. Tailor it precisely to your vision, your audience, your times, your genre (or industry). There is NO good one-size-fits-all score or script. This is the score or script for your performance. Growing a business means getting it right for you and documenting carefully.
- Invest in talent development. Hiring a superstar is occasionally a good strategy. But not often. It is more cost-effective, and brings much greater benefits to find people with great raw talent but only just enough experience, and invest in training them. Do it right and they will invest in your performance. The greatest ensembles have been playing together for decades. A healthy symphony orchestra has a turn-over of less than 3%. We can learn from that.
- Practice, practice, practice. Neither good systems, nor great talent, are any replacement for putting in the hours to get it right. That is another lesson we can learn from the performing arts: it is expected in the process of creating a great performance you are going to make a lot of mistakes. Do it again. And then, when you have it right, do it ten more times. Having a great script and great talent are never enough. Even the very best put in the hours. Musicians, actors, and athletes live with this. Business is not exempt.
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the kind of great performance we are talking about.