How to avoid ‘unhealthy urgency’ in a technical world

Advancing technology has given us amazing tools to improve business performance and customer satisfaction. But over the years I’ve observed that in many businesses, investments in technology have not improved overall performance as planned and customers continue to deal with broken promises. 

Today’s manufacturers, for example, have a powerful toolbox. They have Computer Aided Design or CAD software to make accurate three-dimensional models of components and complete products. Computer Aided Manufacturing or CAM software translates those models into machine commands for accurate forming, machining and welding. 

Enterprise Resource Planning or ERP software manages quotes, orders, purchasing of materials and production schedules. Of course, everyone has spreadsheets, word processing and email. 

When I started my career, those tools were all in their infancy. For the most part we worked with pencils and paper, land-line telephones and manually operated machines. When we failed to satisfy our customers, we couldn’t blame computer systems. We barely had any. The failures were human failures. 

The funny thing is, when I see companies fail to satisfy customers today, the problem generally isn’t bugs in the technology, it’s still the people. I believe some human failures have actually been made worse or more common by the very technology that is supposed to be making everything better. 

Entering data, which can be shared across functions into integrated systems, is a good thing. Integration can boost productivity and reduce errors. But when we start to think that sharing information in an integrated system as a substitute for human planning and collaboration we start down a slippery slope. 

Time and again, I’ve seen cases of businesses receiving orders, entering data into the ERP system, creating CAD models and CAM programs, and launching into production, only to have everything grind to a halt. The machine or tooling chosen isn’t quite right for the job, or a requirement was missed or there was an assumption made that was incorrect. 

Integrated systems facilitate sharing information at light speed. If the information is incorrect, incomplete or ill-advised, it still fans out everywhere at light speed. This capability has brought with it what I think is an unhealthy urgency for people to move at light speed too, and an abandonment of the kind of attention to detail and human collaboration that was essential in the paper-and-pencil days. 

Taking a breath, paying more attention to details, and collaborating across department boundaries would prevent many problems. The solution isn’t technology; it’s people taking ownership, paying attention, and communicating. Talking to each other is still far superior to sharing a data file.  

Another problem I see is the illusion that sending emails is an advanced form of collaboration and problem solving. That is a very prevalent attitude. When we learn of a problem, we send somebody or some list of people an email and that’s the end of it. We’ve done our job. We’ve passed the problem downstream. 

I’ve seen serious, but not fatal, customer service problems fester into full-blown crises because whoever learned about it first didn’t get out of his or her chair, grab some knowledgeable people, and sit down with them to resolve the problem. When asked why they didn’t take care of the problem the answer is always the same, “Well, I sent an email.”

Technology is a wonderful thing and investing in it is important, but I truly believe smart managers can make big improvements by refocusing people on taking time to pay attention to detail and collaborating face-to-face or at worst by teleconference.  No integrated system and no exchange of email can equal the power of knowledgeable people sharing a conversation.  

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newleveladvisors.com.

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