A Fool With a Tool is Still a Fool

When I was quite young, my parents bought me a toy that was very typical for pre-kindergarten boys at the time. It consisted of a small wooden workbench-like table with several pegs of various colors and sizes tightly fitted into holes in the workbench’s surface. The toy came with a wooden mallet for pounding down the pegs flush with the bench’s surface. Once a child had finished leveling all of the pegs, the workbench could be flipped over to reveal the full set of pegs newly in need of pounding. I’ve since come to realize that the toy was some sort of maniacal children’s boot camp preparing me for adult life where each new day brings the previous day’s pegs standing tall and waiting to be pounded down once again.

Some years later, my grandfather presented me with a large block of wood, a box of heavy—and, therefore, hard-to-bend—nails, and my very own real hammer. I had apparently reached a point in my hammering prowess that it was time to move on to more challenges. Much as in real life, the nails required some degree of careful attention in the beginning in order to turn out correctly. I’d learned how to avoid bending a nail when driving it—valuable preparation for facing the reality that things do not always go as planned. And, I’d learned how to straighten out the nail once I had bent it—which, of course, taught me that I could recover from my mistakes with a bit of time, attention and patience.

Years later, as an adult, I worked with a man who brought my prepubescent tool experiences full circle. One day, he referenced a prior co-worker as having been nothing more than “a fool with a tool.” He explained that in spite of his cohort’s skill with and knowledge of the tool, the man consistently failed to apply the tool to accomplish anything. He was frequently seen busily using the tool, but he never seemed to get anything worthwhile done.

As I ponder this important distinction in light of today’s rapidly expanding world of new technologies, I find it disturbing to consider just how many companies focus on a particular tool, learn all about it and how to use it, and then fail to apply it in a meaningful way. It would seem that the fool-with-a-tool syndrome is alive and well in the new millennium. But, it doesn’t have to always end that way. It turns out that companies can easily avoid this common pitfall by following a structured approach to addressing their business automation opportunities and saving their tool selection for last. What follows is a set of five rules that I used for years while consulting to make sure that whatever work I did produced meaningful results for the company in question.

Rule #1: Never Choose The Tool First

Imagine entering an emergency room with two problems: a hangnail and blood pressure that’s off the charts. Under normal circumstances, one would expect the ER staff to address your blood pressure first and then, when you were out of danger, possibly see to that pesky hangnail. The fact that a surgeon in the area just got a new scalpel from Switzerland and is just dying to try it out should have no bearing on which of your maladies is treated first.

Unfortunately in today’s world of technological alphabet soup, many companies hear about a new tool or technology and then, try to find a place to use it. I regularly chuckle at many companies’ XML strategy. The first clue is that their strategy centers on the use of a tool rather than the solving of a problem! They’re not sure where they’ll use it or how it will benefit them, but that’s not stopping them from pondering its application anyway. It’s like me waking up on Saturday morning and walking around the house proudly announcing, “Honey, today I’m going to use the shovel!” When asked “To do what?”, I’d respond, “I don’t know, yet, but everyone up and down the street has their shovel out, and I’m going to find a place to use ours.”

One of the greatest dangers of violating Rule #1 is that you define success as finding a place to use the tool rather than whether or not you maximally benefited the organization. As the old Chinese saying warns, “When all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails.” When you start with a tool that you’d like to use, you view your problems in terms of those that can potentially be solved using that tool.

Rule #2: Start With The End In Mind

There’s a story of the Marine sharpshooter who decided to visit his hometown after being away for several years. As he got closer to town, he began to notice a number of targets painted on fence posts, signs, trees, etc. In each of the targets, a single shot had found its mark in the center of the bull’s eye. The soldier decided to seek out the person responsible for such fine shooting to discover the marksman’s secret. When he inquired in town, he was told that the source of the consistent bull’s eyes was none other than the village idiot. With some disbelief, the soldier searched for and found the unlikely marksman and asked him his secret. The village idiot replied, “It’s easy. I shoot first and draw the circles later!”

The great worth of first clearly defining the result you wish to produce is that all discussions regarding what will change, how it will change, and which tools will be used to facilitate the change are reality-checked against—and dependent upon—the desired end results. You shoot first (by identifying the result you want) and draw the circles later (by choosing the appropriate changes and facilitating tools that will yield the desired result). If at any point during the discovery process a direction is proposed that would fail to contribute effectively to the target result, it is easily identified and discarded or modified.

Rule #3: Identify The Cause of Problems

In times of economic stress, it’s common for companies to cut back on their workforce to ease cost pressures. While this move is certainly called for in some cases, it is more often a knee-jerk reaction to deeper, more systemic problems that need to be addressed to improve the long-term efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the company. It’s often a bit like taking a group of jugglers, reducing their number, but keeping the number of balls and the method of juggling exactly the same. And, of course, the expectation is that the understaffed juggling crew will still manage to avoid dropping any balls! The competitive advantage that a similarly lean but more efficient competitor could have should not be taken lightly.

An event that occurred shortly after the end of World War II provides an illustration of this error. Following the war, it was decided that certain military procedures had room for improvement. A particular artillery unit was selected for review by efficiency experts, who watched the procedures for loading, firing, unloading, and reloading a cannon. After the weapon had been loaded, two of the unit’s members would run back approximately 100 feet at a ninety-degree angle from the other and stand. After the gun had been fired, they would each run back to assist in the unloading and reloading, after which they would, once again, run back the 100 feet to their individual positions for firing. When the soldiers were asked about this seemingly pointless behavior, they replied that it was written in the procedures.

When the origin of the procedures was researched, the efficiency experts found that the procedures had been put in place sometime before the Civil War. It turned out that the original intent of the procedure was for the two men to run back and hold each of two groups of horses so that the horses would not get spooked and run away in response to the cannon blast. The only problem, of course, was that the military had long since stopped using horses in combat, but had never altered the process.

As I’ve worked with companies to analyze their business processes, I’ve found it incredibly common to discover instances of employees “holding imaginary horses” as part of their daily duties. In many cases, these companies had already gone through several efficiency reorganizations. It wasn’t that the employees were choosing to be inefficient. On the contrary, they were usually hard-working, dedicated professionals. It’s just that their company had decided on solutions for the problem before they had fully identified the cause. When their tasks were finally viewed in relation to how things could be done to produce desired results (rather than simply getting a job done) the “imaginary horses,” made themselves known. Taking such an approach reveals where change is needed and sets the stage for Rule #4.

Rule #4: How/Why Should It Change?

Once the problem’s cause has been identified, keep in mind the old saying, “If you keep doing the things you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting the results you’ve been getting.” The only valid reason for launching any business automation initiative is to improve the results you’re getting. Harkening back to Rule #2, start with the results you want to produce and—from Rule #3—identify the cause of the problem (those imaginary horses) before trying to define the solution. In so doing, you’ll be ideally situated to determine what needs to change—and how—in order to deliver the target results.

Concentrate on trying to find the elements of the target process area that if properly addressed will most favorably affect the business performance measurements most needing attention (a.k.a. the desired business results). Once you’ve satisfied yourself that you’ve found a significant contributor to the business results you’ve committed to achieve—and once you’ve determined how the process should be conducted differently—you’re prepared to determine which tool(s) will aid in the process improvement.

Rule #5: It Must Deliver The Results

Some years ago, the most successful salesman in our company—we’ll call him Connor—showed up for his quarterly review with a list of tasks he performed in his daily job. Next to some of the tasks he had written the letters, “DNFTBD.” When asked about the meaning of the letters, Connor replied that he was pretty sure that he’d finally gotten a handle on what the company wanted from him. He pointed out that it seemed that he got paid more money the more he sold. So, he surmised that where and when he had a choice, he believed that the company would prefer that he execute tasks that directly led to a sale. His managers readily agreed, but continued to press for an explanation about the DNFTBD.

Connor pointed out that he and his wife had no children, but they did have two bulldogs. And, in the absence of children, they tended to dote on their dogs. Connor explained, “I put DNFTBD next to all of my tasks that do not directly contribute to making sales, because they do not feed the bulldogs.”

Once you’ve completed all your discussions regarding where the problem is, what should change to address the problem, and which tool should be used to facilitate the recommended change, it’s imperative to reality-check your decisions by asking, “Will this, in fact, produce the results we set out to deliver?” Very few companies have enough excess resources to be able to afford to waste them on initiatives that do not feed the bulldogs.

In Summary

With the cornucopia of tools and strategies that are regularly heralded in the rapidly evolving world of business automation, it is far too easy to latch onto a particular gizmo or fad as the next panacea and charge ahead. Consider how lathered up so many companies got with their “anything Internet” strategies shortly after we collectively realized that we would survive Y2K. How unproductive was the “XML will save the world” evangelizing that distracted far too many companies from working on efficiency improvements and, instead, sent them on a myopic scavenger hunt looking for places to use XML? How much time are companies spending on RFID, voice over IP, or some other gee-whiz tool while their organizations continue to hemorrhage internally from numerous process inefficiencies?

With the limited funds and personnel with which most companies must operate on a regular basis, it’s imperative to make sure that limited resources are always employed to produce the most meaningful results for the organization. Rules 1-5 serve as guardrails to make sure that you stay on the right road, avoid the fool with a tool syndrome, and always deliver maximum business automation value to your company. Remember, it’s not how many nails you pounded in, nor the type of hammer you used, but rather, the worth of what you built that ultimately matters.

About the Author

John Stelzer is Director of Industry Development for Sterling Commerce. Since 1984, he has been providing education and consulting on electronic commerce—to date, educating more than 27,000 professionals from over 16,000 companies. For more information on electronic commerce in the retail industry or data synchronization specifically, John can be reached at 614.793.7046 or john_stelzer@stercomm.com

More by John Stelzer

About Sterling Commerce

Sterling Commerce is one of the world’s largest providers of business integration solutions. For more than 25 years, thousands of companies have depended on Sterling Commerce expertise to optimize collaborative relationships through the integration of applications, external partners, suppliers and customers. With more than 25,000 customers worldwide, Sterling Commerce is the dominant business integration solutions provider in retail, consumer packaged goods, manufacturing, financial services and telecommunications.