World's worst excuses to avoid business improvement

Phil Brown

Some businesses never seem to have the time or budget to improve, says Phil Brown, Business Excellence Manager at Pattonair. In this article Brown describes the world’s worst improvement excuses and how you can counter them.

During my working life I have been privileged to have been able to work across different industries and companies to earn a living and to try and to make a difference.
I have held many positions, roles and responsibilities. In all of them I have taken a personal stance to try and improve what I do and how my company delivers and achieves. (Yes I know, sounds a bit high and mighty but as any of you that are change agents will know, you have to have that belief to enable you to do the role!)
As well as my day job, I have also been an EFQM Excellence Assessor, at both a regional and national level, for over 15 years. This has given me a golden opportunity to lead and participate in teams carrying out assessments on a wide variety of organisations such as prisons, banks, societies, manufacturing units, and local government to name a few.
This experience has been invaluable in understanding the different types of businesses, both for profit and not for profit, that make up our national business landscape. It has provided me with a wealth of knowledge of the ‘things’ that businesses do (and don’t do!), to make themselves a better organisations and I continually try to bring that understanding into my current role.
For the rest of this article I want to try and summarise three of the most common (and widely used!), excuses for not having to actually change things. (And I must stress that these do not apply to my current organisation where Business Excellence is not only part of the business culture but actively supported from the top down.)
World's worst excuse 1: But Phil, you don’t understand, I know we should do what you suggest but this isn’t the right time!

World's worst excuse no.2: But Phil, you don’t understand, we are different from any other business and this doesn’t apply to us!
World's worst excuse no. 3: But Phil, you don’t understand, we can’t afford the cost of improving!
I’m sure in your travels as a change agent (dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and people who don’t understand what you do are why you are bothering them), you have come across many others, but these are the 3 that seem to be the most widely used in my experience (and they are often combined to make the case for not doing anything even stronger!).
So let’s take them one at a time:
1) But Phil, you don’t understand – this isn’t the right time.
Interesting one this, in all my years in different businesses I have never been lucky enough to hit that pendulum when it is smack in the middle of the range – the right time!
I have been there when we don’t have enough work to warrant any investment or effort in change – if only we had more work then it would be just right for us to start the improvement actions that we know we should do.
I have been there when we have had too much work to be able to start the improvement actions – if only we weren’t so busy it would be just right for us to start the improvement actions that we know we should do.
Unfortunately I have a simple belief, the right time for change is now, no excuses, no reasons – just get on with it but this doesn’t seem to be shared by many in business so becomes a good excuse to do nothing and delays the inevitable.
2) But Phil, you don’t understand, we are different from any other business so this doesn’t apply to us!
Another interesting one this. Whilst assessing organizations for EFQM, it is interesting how many organisations say it is good that I/the assessment team don’t come from their industry so can bring a different perspective to the assessment. That is of course until the Areas for Improvement start arriving and then it is amazing how fast we get back to "but you don’t understand our business!")
Once, for instance, when asked to visit a dairy as a consultant, I was told by the Manager that I couldn’t possibly help them as I had never worked in a dairy. I responded by asking the Manager to join me for an initial walk around for an hour – with the proviso that if at the end of the hour he still felt I couldn’t help him then I would leave without claiming my fee.
After about 45 minutes of me walking with him and asking him general questions about process, measures, waste etc he said "ok, you’ve made your point – I guess you do have some interesting ideas for improvement".
So I would venture that if you (product or service), buy anything, sell anything, provide a service, design anything, have accounts, customers or stakeholders or work with processes, then I am sorry but your business is very much the same as any other business and can be improved in a very similar way.
3) But Phil, you don’t understand, we can’t afford the cost of improving!
Another interesting one. The Gurus call waste "the gold in the mine". Anyone who has spent any time looking into the "cost of quality" will be aware of just how much money, time, effort and resources companies waste in their daily business. For any organisation that doesn’t know its true cost of quality (i.e. the REAL amount of waste across the business), then I would suggest that a realistic figure would be start at 25% of turnover and work upwards. (Ok, I can hear the sharp intake of breath – "this guy has no idea!").
OK, let me give you an example of hidden waste. In one organisation I worked in I was told that Accounts didn’t deal with any waste. I asked them how much it cost to re-process an invoice (they didn’t know, but estimated it to be about £45 each). I then asked them what percentage of their invoices got re-processed (again they didn’t know but worked it out to about 18% of all invoices).
The maths was simple, several hundred re worked invoices at £45 each made an improvement activity essential (from zero interest initially).
Not surprisingly, looking at the route cause/VSM for the invoices threw up all sorts of areas for improvement. The initial pay back not only dwarfed the improvement activity cost but was then an ongoing cost saving. Pure Profit!
If you haven’t got time to do it right – when will you have time to do it again?
You had better budget for spending about 10 times as much to fix the problem as you would have spent preventing it – pretty much the ratio I have worked on for 30 years.

So next time you don’t think you can afford to improve, I would take a long hard look at what your problems are actually costing you and think again!
So in summary, if you find yourself or your organisation using these or similar phrases, then 2 points:
1) You are in good company – they are well worn and comfortable for many and can let you feel that you don’t actually have to change,
2) I hope the business you are in is able to absorb the high level of waste/cost that is inevitable in organisations that do not have any improvement/change programme in place.
For all of you involved in change management - good luck with dodging those slings and arrows!