Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Abnormal Change

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“How far back can you remember?” a friend asked me the other day. I thought about it for awhile searching my old memories and finally responded “Maybe 28 or 30”. “Years ago?” he asked. “No, waist size”, I responded.  Change happens.

Dandelions are the perennial weed that are just about impossible to get rid of from your lawn. Tough as nails they show up everywhere you don’t want them to. Upon closer inspection the yellow flower of the dandelion is actually made up of numerous small flowers, each yellow petal being a separate flower capable of turning into an individual seed and in aggregate yielding the cottony ball that was so much fun to blow upon and scatter so long ago. I can remember that. Dandelions are adaptable. One study of them recently showed that in as little as 12 generations dandelions adapted from having that familiar cottony seed distribution system, with seeds drifting in the wind, to one that favored seeds that fell immediately around the mother (and father since they are asexual) plant. The plant was able to evolve, incorporating a new adaptation in as little as 12 seasons.  The new adaptation was the development of seeds without the white cottony tufts upon which to float in the wind. What was the reason for this change? When dandelions found themselves growing in urban locations with concrete all around, it became more advantageous to them to fall immediately next to mom, who was already conveniently gowning in a crack in the sidewalk filled with soil, then to scatter seeds in all directions looking for the next bit of dirt in which to put down roots.  In as little as 12 seasons dandelions took an evolutionary process that is often viewed as glacially slow and made fairly dramatic change.

Organizations of course need to be able to change or they will eventually die out, advice that any dandelion can give. A critically important point about organizational change though is that the most successful organizations need to consider how to control the definition of what are the normal standards of performance for their products and services. Being able to control the definition of standard or normal can be a path to greatly increasing market share and profitability. This is as true for the little restaurant on the corner as it is for the global behemoth. Organizations that can control the definition of “normal” performance or “normal” service are the standard bearers in their respective markets. Being able to control the definition of normal is also how some upstart startup can shake up an industry and penetrate the traditional barriers to competition.

Federal Express changed the definition of “normal” delivery times for packages and letters, doing something that no one else seemed to consider and grew into an extremely profitable, very successful organization. They again changed the definition of what a customer could expect when tracking packages, greatly increasing transparency and again setting the standard which everyone strove to emulate.

Henry Ford with his concept of mass production changed the definition of what a “normal” car should cost, greatly increasing the ability for the average person to own a personal transportation machine. His working definition of affordability was that a Ford Motor Company worker on the assembly line should be able to afford the product which they were producing.

The Japanese car companies, Toyota, Honda, Nissan among others came along much latter and changed the definition of what normal quality was, tapping into a desire of the consumer to own a quality, reliable product with fewer defects at a reasonable cost and quickly captured enormous market share. (They did not start out that way but came to see the light as they evolved and adopted the six-sigma tools made available by Dr. Deming).

Apple, a company that takes the notion of owning the “norm” seriously, of course changed the definition of how we buy and purchase music, driving traditional retail record stores to near or into bankruptcy as they could not adapt their traditional retail model. Apple is trying to do that again with the iPhone.

Amazon changed the way we purchase products on-line and Google changed the norm by which we search for and access information. eBay forever changed the way  that garage or lawn sales happen and has spurred an entire secondary economy employing hundred of thousands.

Starbucks changed the definition of how you purchase and how much you purchase coffee for and for a long time now a cup of high octane coffee has cost more then a gallon of high octane gasoline, but I think gasoline is pulling ahead once again. I can’t help but wonder if part of what is happening with the new highs in gasoline prices is to establish a new norm around what a gallon of gas should cost. (I can remember back to the 60’s – cents per gallon).

Wal-Mart established a new norm around pricing models and Target and Kohl’s added in more of a quality and shopping experience component (where did I hear that before?). A similar battle rages between Home Depot and Lowes. The list goes on and on.

The challenge to organizations as they seek to improve their performance is not to simply incrementally improve but to strive for breakthroughs that allow them to leapfrog the competition – to create not simply normal change but abnormal change, change beyond what is expected; to reinvent not only themselves but their products in such a fashion that it creates a new standard, a new norm of performance and then to make it happen. That takes creativity and insight, it takes a workforce that is willing and ready to adapt to new ideas and concepts and can work outside the box. To paraphrase one company’s motto, “We have a better idea” – do you?

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 13, 2009 at 8:07 am

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