If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It!

by Dr. Gordon D. Booth

I remember years ago that there was a sign posted prominently behind the desk of my boss. It read: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It was a philosophy that governed that person's life. In fact, it was the governing principle of everything we did as a group. It was believed that unnecessary expense was avoided by adherence to this idea. Up to a point this is true. However, if the same path is used too often, it turns into a rut. In fact, it has been said that, "A rut is a grave with both ends open."

W. Edwards Deming often told the story of a woman who always cut both ends off of the ham before putting it in the oven. Her husband, trying to determine the reason, asked her. She said she was taught to do that by her mother. At the first opportunity, the husband asked his mother-in-law why she cut both ends off of the ham. She answered that she, too, had been taught by her mother. When the occasion arose, the husband asked his wife's grandmother why she cut off both ends of the ham. Her answer was that early in her marriage she had a small oven and had to cut the ends off the ham to make it fit in the oven. She just never broke the habit.

I have found similar "habits" that have existed in organizations for many years. They probably had their roots in a very real situation, but when conditions changed, the established "policies" remained as an artifact of an age gone by. The organization had traveled the same path for so long that they were thoroughly entrenched in a rut. The people in the organization didn't know how to get out. In fact, most of them didn't even realize they were in a rut.

It usually requires an external force to get an organization out of a rut. Often this force is a financial one. For some organizations, only serious financial pressure can cause them to make the kinds of changes that are required. For example, there came a time in the movie industry when profits were high and so was complacency. The general feeling was, "Why mess with success?" Unfortunately (or more appropriately, fortunately), Warner Brothers had not been able to score as high in the box office as the other studios had. They were on the brink of bankruptcy. In desperation, they took a chance that none of the other studios were willing to take. They made the first talking movie. The rest is history.

The whole process of continual improvement is based on discarding ideas like "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." and "Why mess with success." It does not mean that we should abandon good products, good processes, and good policies. But it does mean that we should frequently look around to see whether the only thing in sight is the inside of a rut.