Tuesday, June 11, 2013

When Tools Destroy Value

A week ago, during my morning walk I noticed a 4 feet long bamboo stick with a broken edge hanging from one of the mango trees. This tree is one among the four mango trees of a household in a gated community on our walking track. Considering the hundreds of full-size unripe mangoes, I could guess how that stick made it to the top of the tree. Someone living there must have used a long stick to pick mangoes and eventually broke it in to two pieces. The top piece got stuck to the tree and the other remained secure in the hands of that person. That is easy, and obvious.

Daily I notice this stick trapped in the tree at a height of about fifteen feet from the ground. It is surrounded by bunches of mangoes unpicked. Soon those mangoes will ripe, some of them will serve the monkeys and squirrels and the rest will fall on the muddy soil and decay unless there is an attempt to pick as many mangoes before they ripe and start hitting the ground one by one.

This is a simple story of an entangled tool that did not live long enough to serve its purpose and four fertile-but-barely-reaped trees. Using a tool like this will result in definitive neck, shoulder and back pain when you attempt to pick as many mangoes from all four trees. When you feel the pain, you will decide to pick less than one percent of the mangoes and leave the rest on the trees.

It goes on like this. When a mango picking stick breaks, like how it happened in this story, a frugal approach is to find another stick which is about five feet long and tie it with a rope or string to the latter part which was secure in the owner’s hand. As you guess, sooner it will give some happiness with its utility in fetching three or four mangoes and naturally get entangled in the tree or fall apart. In order to get some more happiness, you will fix it the same way yielding to intermittent neck, shoulder and back pain. With bouts of time wasted in mending the tool and an abysmal number of mangoes picked, the story will continue.

We know, there are better tools for this context. There are hi-tech tools too – they are meant for mango orchards with hundreds of trees.

In IT industry, we come across tools and their ill effects.

After years of working you find that one or more of your tools are not serving the purpose and they are entangled in the whole mesh of corporate IT systems. Your tool is too slow or does not make you productive. You don’t get to maximize the number of mangoes collected. Lots of mangoes go wasted on the tree. In spite of brilliant ideas and better choices, you and your team find it hard to retire the tool or replace it with a better tool. Meanwhile, those who recommended or commissioned that tool several years ago live with those victorious memories and continue to recommend that tool. According to them a tool like this cannot have a shorter runway - it is their baby!  With patch upgrades, maintenance fixes, and some face lift - of course, all these applied to the tool - they make it live longer. The entanglement continues and any tool like this destroys value!

When I step back and think, I realize that this issue is not specific to IT industry. It can happen anywhere and it happens everywhere. In business terms, this is about ongoing issues in fixing recurrent tools related problems meanwhile leaving lot of money on the table and witnessing loss of productivity and increase in stress.

You may ask, “So, what do you suggest?” I anticipated this question. Let me answer.

I don’t mean to suggest that we need to invest in fancy tools. I want to emphasize that tools must serve the purpose of the present and the near future. Tools need to align with strategic goals related to business growth and help us remain competitive. This means that tool selection should not consider margins or cost-saving alone as a criteria. Tools need to boost productivity. There has to be a strategic investment in procuring, commissioning and maintaining tools. There has to be a periodic review – may be every six months or one year – to introspect and find answer to, “Do our tools create value?” Finally, decision makers including senior leaders must be part of this review to decide on what to do when tools destroy value.

What do you think?


Anand Lakshmanan said...


First at the outset, you have raised a very pertinent point. What you have said probably applies to different aspects of our life, not just the office / industry.

And, if we replace the word "tool" with "process", your idea would still be as true as ever. We create some process with some end result in mind - over a period of time, that process would have lost its purpose, but it is practised as a ritual.

Just some of my thoughts after going through your article.

With regards
Anand Lakshmanan
Ericsson India

Raja Bavani said...

Anand, Absolutely. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

Saurabh Mathur said...

Hi Raja,

You have pinned one of the most generic ailing point. Needless to say the core idea behind creating a "tool" or a "process" is not just financials but it needs to be viewed in terms of "value addition". Financials will follow once the process is done successfully.

I second you on the thought of periodic reviews about tools/process and to ensure that value addition is the primary focus. At the same time, we should foster an environment where people can openly question the efficacy of the process/tool, thus paving the path for increased acceptance of the process/tool.

Saurabh Mathur

Gene Hughson said...

Absolutely agree. I consider it something of a law that everything that does for you does to you. Ensuring that the balance is net positive is key.

Raja Bavani said...

Saurabh, You are right. Organizational culture matters. Collaborative and open environments encourage such questions from people at all levels.

Raja Bavani said...

Gene, Very well said! Thanks!