The problem of process sabotage

Sabotage is a surprisingly large and overlooked problem in any improvement initiative. It isn’t polite to talk about.

Age-old story

I had a conversation this weekend with a California entrepreneur who provides software that dramatically improves outcomes while lowering costing for injection molding, a common industrial process that is used to produce everything from bottle caps to the body panels of your car.

The molding process is error-prone, time-consuming, expensive and a capital intensive process that requires a great deal of experience and specialized knowledge to get right.  On might imagine that a quicker , cheaper and more reliable solution would be an easy sell in this world of competitive economics.  It’s not.

He told about a recent project meeting he had with one of his Fortune 500 companies.  In the meeting, the partnering companies that helped design and carry out the molding process presented his client with bogus data to show that the new algorithm didn’t work.  He pointed out that the data presented was impossible, showed why, and the partners were requested to re-submit accurate data.  This situation has repeated itself several times with other clients.

He’s running into the age-old problem that virtually all innovations that lead to efficiency improvements and better outcomes face: The problem of sabotage and the spectre of pushback. The problem of sabotage shows up in virtually every case where someone comes up with a better way to do things. And it goes far back into our history.

Past and present examples

Galileo presented scientific proof that the earth revolved around the sun.  The church and experts at the time objected and he spent much of the remainder of his life under house arrest.

Real estate brokers fought tooth and nail (and legislatively) against free online services like Zillow and Trulia that automated the home value process.

The CEO of a hospital in Newport Beach described how many doctors continue to want to treat medicine as a “craft industry” where they heal based on intuition and personal experience rather than proven, evidenced-based protocols.

So, my California entrepreneur friend shouldn’t have been surprised with the pushback and sabotage. I think a more important question is, “How do we overcome this situation?”

Root cause

We overcome by looking at the root cause for the pushback, which is typically perceived loss of power based on outdated expertise.  The church and its experts would have lost their sole ownership of the the understanding of the way the universe works. The realtors would lose their monopoly on pricing information. Doctors would lose their air of invincibility.  The stakes are extremely high and people are willing to fight the change.

Success strategies

So, what are the winning strategies?

The Catholic Church probably needed to stay out of astronomy, real estate agents need to worry more about selling homes, and doctors need to be researchers and team players. But process is more nuanced.

For those working to create process change, the answer is to focus not on the disruption but on the additional value to customers. It’s only way to cast off activities that no longer work or have become clunky and messy. It has to be reinforced constantly.

There’s one more lesson for the innovator: Don’t be a zealot. No one likes a zealot and zealots are far more likely to be sabotaged. It is so much easier to resist someone that hasn’t played the social game. I’ll bet you know someone in this category.

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Categories: Disruption, Process Management

Author:Tom Molyneux

A business process strategist with a focus on real-time event management.

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