Shrink the Change

As I've said many times, I'm not a big fan of business books. I think they're usually bloated, self-evident, post-hoc analyses that don't really teach too much. (Read about the "Halo Effect" for a more thoughtful and intelligent critique on these books.) Nevertheless, though, I read and really enjoyed Chip and Dan Heath's latest book, Switch. Notwithstanding Kevin Meyer's low regard for the book, I found it insightful and really useful. Because, really, when you're trying to get people to manage their time better or to undertake a lean transformation, what you're really trying to do is get them to make a change -- a switch -- in the way they behave.

The Heath brothers talk about Dave Ramsey's "Debt Snowball" approach to reducing personal debt. Dave advocates that when you're totally overwhelmed by debt, you should pay off the smallest debt first, rather than the debt with the highest interest rate. When you've paid off that debt, every available dollar goes to paying off the next smallest debt. Why? In his words,

sometimes motivation is more important than math. This is one of those times. . . . Face it, if you go on a diet and lose weight the first week, you will stay on that diet. If you go on a diet and gain weight or go six weeks with no visible progress, you will quit. When training salespeople, I try to get them a sale or two quickly because that fires them up. When you start the Debt Snowball and in the first few days pay off a couple of little debts, trust me, it lights your fire. I don't care if you have a master's degree in psychology; you need quick wins to get fired up. And getting fired up is super-important.

This approach to debt reduction is pretty controversial. But the underlying concept -- getting small wins -- is, I think, a pretty powerful idea. As the Heath brothers put it,

if people are facing a daunting task, and their instinct is to avoid it, you've got to break down the task. Shrink the change. Make the change small enough that they can't help but score a victory. Once people clean a single room, or pay off a single debt, their dread starts to dissipate, and their progress begins to snowball.

In my work, I often see people -- from mid-level managers to highly-paid senior executives -- buried in a pile of junk. (Not exactly the picture of 5S for information.) Despite their competence in so many areas, they're often paralyzed by the task of processing all that stuff. It's just too overwhelming for them. So they feebly move stuff from one side of the desk to the other, or move one email into an electronic folder, and then. . . stop. Or even worse, they come in on a weekend with every intention of finally getting control, but after a few minutes, they give up and do something else, like some regular work. It seems so fruitless to attempt to purge all that accumulated flotsam and jetsam.

Instead, I think, people could help themselves by shrinking the change. Don't try to get completely organized. Just get more organized. Don't try to apply 5S everywhere. Just apply 5S to one area of the office, or one supply closet, or one operating room. For that matter, don't try to become a lean company in one day or one kaizen event. Just try to become leaner.

Make that the first step. Shrink the change, and make it an easy win.