Reflections from an appliance repairman: Why getting to simple is the best strategy for long term sustainable success.

by | Apr 12, 2015 | 1 comment

7 min read
Every day there is an opportunity to learn. Within every situation, and in every new conversation, there’s always a nugget of information to consider. Call it what you will—random learning, organic reflections, take-aways, innovations—regardless, we can learn from almost every moment of our lives. Robert Hunter tells Grateful Dead listeners that “once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” (in his artful “Scarlet Begonias”). I contend that you can always get shown the light if you’re willing to look at it right. Looking at it “right” means having an open mind in every situation. Call it “the strangest of places” if you wish, but an appliance repairman showed me some light this week. My washing machine broke. The motor wouldn’t turn. Maybe 10 years ago I would have flipped it upside-down and pulled the guts out of it, fixed it myself, but these things are really better left to the professionals. After a quick diagnosis, he realized that he needed to replace the water pump because the motor wouldn’t work without a good pump, and my pump was busted. He said, “I really like this model.” I said, “It’s 10 years old.” He said, “Yeah but it’s a simple, good design. The parts are simple, and it only has the essential pieces of the puzzle.” Intrigued, I listened intently. “Washing machines do one thing, they throw the clothes around inside the drum. They only need three functions: a motor, a water pump, and a drain.” He said, “Dryers are the same. They only have two functions: to heat up and spin. When you add anything more to these machines, you just get more parts that can break. Keeps me busy.” Then he chuckled for a minute. I asked him if he worked on other appliances. “Yup, everything…fridges, microwaves, ovens. Whatever you need.” He paused and then continued, “The machines are all the same, though. Same deal. You want them to function for their purpose. Most manufacturers have lost their integrity, which makes it even more important that you get the models without the bells and whistles. Keep it simple. Touch screens, digitalized faceplates, features that don’t matter…keep away from all that. That stuff just breaks. And, not only does it break, but it makes it harder to fix this stuff. More expensive too.” I listened. “What about the best brand?” I asked. “They’re basically all the same” he said, made in the same factories and everything. If you really want something good, get a Viking.” He looked at me. I asked, “Why?” as I typically do with everything. His response: “They keep it simple. They make great stuff, solid as a tank, rarely breaks, and doesn’t have a ton of features that aren’t directly aligned with the primary function of the machine.” That’s when I realized that there was more to his philosophy than his work on appliances, important as it is. He was finished the job in less than an hour, he kept his work area clean, and he packed up and moved on to his next appointment. I paid a fair price for the work, but I got much more than a repaired washer. Here’s what I learned in a reflection from the appliance repairman: Keep it Simple Why is it that in our organizations we do so much that isn’t directly aligned to our purpose? Initiative after program after new idea, we keep piling it on, rarely taking anything off of the agenda and even more rarely evaluating the success or failure of our practices. It’s easy to be the shiny new model with the bells and whistles. It’s easy to add features that seem to be important on the surface. But, that’s the stuff that breaks first. What we really want is to be a Viking, solid as a tank and simple. What to do? Make a list of the aspects of your organization that are most important. Then list everything that your organization has going on. Now, cross off items from the second list that aren’t aligned to the first list. That’s getting to simple. That should identify the essential working parts of your organization. Working Parts Once you’ve identified the essential working parts, you need to ensure that the parts work. That’s the difference between inefficiency and efficiency—having too many parts that don’t matter or reducing your focus to the essential parts that keep your organization working well. The next step is to delegate. Who takes the lead on each of the working parts? Having leadership at every level of the organizational flowchart is critical for the success of the working parts, to keep the parts working. Workflow within an organization can’t be top down for the speed needed in today’s marketplace. To keep up, John Kotter (2014) tells readers that they need a right-hand flowchart that’s hierarchical and a left hand-flowchart that’s more of a web. On the right, the structure is clear in terms of who has what level of authority over decisions. On the left, leaders emerge from every level to spearhead various aspects of the organization. The right side keeps the organization in check, the left side keeps the organization productive. The left side is a distributed leadership model whereby everyone in the organization takes ownership over the working parts, the essentials. 3 Essentials to Consider: 1. Vision/principles that matter. Great organizations have principles at the center of everything they do. These are the pillars that you lean on when things get unstable. Every single person in the organization should be able to state the purpose or recite the main principles. They aren’t goals and they aren’t initiatives. These are the primary written and communicated values that drive the organization. a. What are your organization’s principles or values? b. Are they clear? c. Can everyone in the organization recount them on queue? 2. Focus. Great organizations have a clear focus of the week, month, or year. This should be simple, singular. This year our goal is to increase productivity. This year our goal is to develop a stronger client base. This month our goal is to create a new product line. Again, the focus should permeate the entire organization so everyone from the custodial night staff to the executives can state the focus at any given moment. And, you don’t add a new focus until the old one has been fulfilled. The focus is more like a goal than the principles. a. What is the focus of your organization right now? 3. Monitoring system. Don’t forget about sustainability. Vision statements, principles, and a clear focus are nice to have but nothing will get done if it’s not monitored. This should be clear too. The monitoring system can be weekly check-in meetings for reporting on progress. The system could be a series of observations. The system could be a review of important data at the end of the day, week, or month. We recommend that the system be as frequent as the organization can tolerate. a. What system does your organization use to frequently monitor the progress of the goals or identified focus for any given department? Conclusion My washing machine repairman reminded me that frills aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. It might look nice to have a flat panel television built into the front of your refrigerator but that doesn’t help to keep the food at a safe temperature for storage. A digital touchscreen on your dryer might seem like a nice feature on the surface, but it won’t dry the clothes inside. The essential working parts are all that really matter to serve the purpose of the appliance. Our organizations are no different. Getting to simple is the best strategy for long term sustainable success. Need help? Let us know. We also want to hear your thoughts on this blog. @tjvari @josephjonessr Kotter, John. (2014). Accelerate: Building strategic agility for a faster moving world. Harvard Business School Publishing: Boston.

1 Comment

  1. sharon pepukayi

    Great lesson today from “the house ” . Hmmmm..looking at the right light or looking at the light right? Has me thinking….It’s all about getting to simple. Thanks for the questions that can keep organizations focused and fueled!


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