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View From The Hamster Wheel

Oct 24, 2017

One of the most consistent points raised during discussions with clients about new initiatives to improve branch operations, is that they are so buried under tasks already on their plate that there is no chance anything new can be considered. It doesn't particularly matter what the idea is, or what the costs are, or even what the potential benefit is. Through the blur of the spinning wheel of day-to-day activity, nothing can be brought into focus unless it is already active.

What Gets In the Way?

There are many factors that feed into this condition, and most of them push towards staying with whatever already exists inside the wheel.

  • First is simple inertia, the tendency for people to continue down whatever path they are already on. Even if the current path is hectic, stressful or unproductive, at least it is familiar. Inertia is a common trait of human behavior, but also a common trait for organization culture. The old saying, "The only true constant is change." may be true, but that does not mean actively pursuing change is a popular choice.
  • Second is the perception that anything added to the current list of tasks is only going to make the situation worse. In the short term that statement will almost certainly be true. Any initiative to improve the operation requires a longer view in order to perceive and evaluate benefits. The hard part is having the willingness to incur the short term effort to achieve the longer term improvement.
  • Third is concern about adding to overhead and increasing overall complexity in the operation. Ensuring this concern does not become reality means having an explicit plan for the transition. For example, automating a paper form becomes an addition to overhead if you do not in fact get rid of the paper form and related processes the automation is meant to replace.
  • Fourth is the need for coordination. Any significant effort is going to require buy-in and participation from multiple departments such as I.T., branch operations, auditing, management, training and so on. Unfortunately, each of the first three issues can exist independently at some level in each department that needs to participate.

Path To Change

With all of these forces creating resistance to evolutionary change, how does an organization move forward? Several things can be done to alter the landscape.

  • The single most important aspect is to take a long term, or at least longer term, view of the initiative. A short term perspective is likely to be dominated by the hamster wheel effect. Inside the wheel what seems most important is to keep running. A longer term perspective requires looking at the health, productivity and profitability of the overall operation. Many spinning wheels may still be visible, but they are not dominant in the context of the complete ecosystem.
  • Another constructive strategy is to foster a culture and capability for incremental change. Some changes are never incremental such as replacing a core system or going through a merger or acquisition. Large "sea changes" like these are the exception not the rule. If change can be managed as a steady evolutionary process rather than a series of disruptive shifts, it is much more palatable to both employees and the operation itself. It is helpful to have, develop or acquire infrastructure that accommodates change across a range of operational processes. That way, many initiatives are small additions to existing systems instead of a new product or tool to implement, distribute, train and maintain. The degree to which barriers to new ideas can be lowered has a direct effect on how easily new ideas can be implemented.
  • Third, management is in a unique position to either foster or kill a positive culture of change. Employees must not only be allowed, but encouraged, to step off the wheel to have a look around. If management questions why an employee is not in the wheel making it spin as fast as possible, then that is where they will stay. By definition change means doing something differently than it is being done now. Having the creativity and willingness to both envision and create change, requires an even bigger movement away from the status quo. Management may have a different set of hamster wheels, but they are just as hard to get off of or see through.

First Step

The first step in effecting change is to take a deep breath and look around.

  • Is this the best my part of the operation can do?
  • What in the work environment frustrates or inspires on a frequent basis?
  • If I could change one thing what would it be?
  • When is the last time I made something better?

Considering each of these questions stops the wheel, even if only for a few minutes. What may be surprising is how much perspective can change in a short period. Once a vision is in place planning and implementation can start, even if it is on a long track.