Habit is a powerful thing. That can be a good thing—but not always. In the house where my family used to live, there was a counter on the left side of a double sink. When my mother washed the dishes, she washed them in the right-hand sink, rinsed them in the left-hand sink, and put them in the drainer on the counter to the left of the sink. If we’d had a dishwasher, it would have moved through its cycles just as predictably as my mother did: wash, rinse, drain, over and over and over.

When we moved, however, the new kitchen was set up just the opposite, with the counter to the right of the double sink. Yet my mother kept doing the dishes in the same direction she always had: wash them first in the right-hand sink, rinse them in the left-hand sink—and then she’d have to go backward to place the dishes on the counter to the right of the sink. It wasn’t the most efficient way of doing things – but it just seemed like the right way. It felt so comfortable that she did it without even thinking about it, simply because it was the way she’d always done it.

Businesses are much the same. They do things simply because they’ve always done them that way. It never occurs to them that there could be another, better way of doing things now that circumstances have changed. Take the health-care industry as an example: Medical practices rolled out electronic medical records with integrated technology that should have worked. But they didn’t give their people the new processes they needed to use that technology. People who had been doing the same thing the same way for the last ten years were given a thirty-minute training session on how to use the new technology—and that was it. So, at my family doctor’s office, you’ll see a doctor walking around with a paper chart in her hands. When she’s done talking to a patient, she gives the chart to a nurse. The nurse then types the information into a virtual medical record. The new technology is actually adding to the amount of work that needs to be done; no economy of scale there! Instead, there’s less efficiency at greater cost. And the staff at my doctor’s office is saying things like, “ Computers just make our jobs harder. Everything is more complicated. It takes more time than it did in the old days.”

These days we have an automated medical system with family practice clinics spread out across the city or even the state, all tied to a central system at a hospital. This should make health care more efficient, and yet it doesn’t seem to work that way. Administration still can’t get the reports they need on productivity. When they do get them, it looks like productivity is falling rather than going up. More and more work hours are being spent on the same number of patients, so costs are rising. Technology is everywhere, and it’s even integrated with many processes—but each department still functions the way it did before the IT Revolution. We find the same thing happening in every department of medical practices. Patient records are now automated, but information doesn’t always go directly into the system; instead, somebody may still be typing in everything from handwritten notes from someone else.

And of course, we see the same model playing out across the business landscape, because in nearly every kind of business, IT has moved ahead so much faster than the processes it’s meant to support, or the people who aren’t properly trained to use it – and thus wind up with greater workloads rather than smaller and more efficient ones. People and processes haven’t kept up with all the new IT. The business triangle – people, processes, and IT — isn’t equilateral and balanced; instead, it’s all wonky, with one angle much larger than the other two.

How to fix this?

  • Start with your people; invest in training them to get the best of the IT systems you’ve put in place – and I don’t mean a half-hour session with a Powerpoint and snacks. Having great IT without the training to run it is like having a Maserati and no driver’s license.
  • Assess your processes: How many of them are duplicative, outmoded, and no longer necessary? Are you keeping too many kinds of copies of files? Are your people tasked with doing the same thing three different ways? Streamline your processes to match your IT ability.
  • Continually re-evaluate and update the three legs of your triangle – IT, people, and process. That way, you can shed costly and dangerous habits before they become a problem, and get to “better, faster, and smarter” a whole lot more quickly.

Don’t start this process alone. Let’s talk about where to get started.