Some years ago a small brewery in the UK became increasingly successful. The manager of the local supermarket called them to arrange for an additional delivery on Fridays, because the beer had become so popular that it sold out by Saturday each week.
The sales department were pleased to hear that the beer was such a hit, but they refused to arrange for additional deliveries, stating that “we don’t deliver on Fridays.” The supermarket manager tried to argue, but to no avail. Frustrated, he called the brewery owner.
The owner was polite, but he too could not help: “I’m really sorry, but we don’t deliver on Fridays.”
“Could I ask – why?” the supermarket manager said. The brewery owner hesitated. “Frankly, I don’t really know, but I will ask around.”
As promised, the owner checked with senior management. They didn’t know.
He then decided to ask his father, who didn’t know either but suggested that grandpa might know.
The grandpa clarified the matter: “We never delivered on Fridays because the horses were too tired.”
The above story illustrates the destructive power of rituals in business. When I heard the tale, it got me thinking: how many retailers suffer from such a ritualised way of operating? Actions performed because “we always did it this way” rather than being dictated by logic or the necessities of the present?
Some years ago I was asked by the CFO of a medium-sized retailer to review their store operations, to see whether they could be simplified. Post evaluation, I identified changes that would have saved the retailer 20,000 hours per year across the network.
I communicated this to the CFO and imagine how surprised I was to hear: “How dare you question our procedures! We spent years to develop them.” I still wonder why they asked me to get involved in the first place.
Unfortunately, the retailer in question was forced to close their doors, because businesses, like people, tend to take their rituals to their graves.
But, while rituals can be harmful as illustrated above, retailers must rely on routine processes so they can operate a network of stores in a uniform way. A lack of procedure can be just as damaging to a business as redundant rituals. Businesses need structure.
So, how can your business maintain a solid structure without getting stale, or, even worse, caging the organisation in concrete so it becomes incapable of change?
The answer lies in the recognition that both routine business operations and critical review of those operations must be treated as continuing, structured parallel processes.
Based on my observations, only some businesses operate this way. Most simply focus on the day-to-day and never reflect on the mechanics of how they function, while others perform occasional review, treating it as an intervention rather than a routine task.
To prevent business ‘ritualisation’, process analysis and improvement need to be incorporated as a part of your normal operations.
Deming’s Total Quality Management (TQM) method provides the best framework for such disciplined, continual process evolution:
This approach ensures that both process design and execution have structural integrity, while still remaining dynamic – the key to empowering your business to deliver on Fridays, and to do it well.
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