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Systems, Order, Entropy, and Chaos: Why it's So Hard to Keep Things Running Smoothly

(June 2009) posted on Mon Jun 01, 2009

The basic laws of the universe are fighting against your efforts to apply systems and order to your business.

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By Mark A. Coudray

As managers and senior employees are thrust back into the production environment, the natural tendency is to go back to what they know—what worked when they were on the floor. Guess what? It doesn’t work that way anymore. Too many things have changed. Documentation wasn’t maintained. People have come and gone, and so have the stable methods. Reliance on that’s the way we’ve always done it simply does not work.

So, in an effort to save money and reduce costs, the entire ecology of the company grinds to a near halt. Instead of experiencing a 30% drop in efficiency with a 30% reduction in the workforce, the real consequences are much more dramatic. The company can become almost dysfunctional. Mistakes start happening everywhere. Jobs get rejected. Deadlines are missed. Reputation in the market deteriorates. All that progress over the years seems to evaporate before our very eyes. On top of all this, frustration levels are higher than they’ve ever been and morale is low and getting lower.

This is the point where the owners often get directly involved in the process, like the White Knight to the Rescue. Depending on how involved the owners were previously, this can be a good thing or a disaster. Owners who are reasonably competent and capable can be a stabilizing factor in the sense that the remaining employees feel confident the owners can handle what’s going on. After a week or two of being on the floor, the full extent of the task at hand becomes clear.

Things have changed, that’s obvious. What was working isn’t as clear. There’s a state of general shock at the degree to which control and ordered systems are no longer functional. It’s easy to look for someone to blame, but that’s only an emotional response to the situation. There really is no one to hold accountable because of the evolutionary aspect of systems as I previously described. Productivity is what it is and the current situation is a new set of circumstances.

The ongoing success depends on how quickly you can get to the root of what really matters for a company at this new size. It means everyone has to look at every single task and responsibility and determine whether each is necessary at all. There’s a tremendous amount of redundancy that naturally develops over time. This is a great time to question everything. If it doesn’t add value to the company and the customer, stop doing it. I often ask if the task were itemized on an invoice, would the customer question the charge or accept it? While this is a bit extreme, it’s a good starting point to redefine our efforts. Simplify, simplify, simplify. The fewer +steps, the easier it is to control and teach to others.


Our goals are redefined

The extreme nature of the economy right now forces many of us to make changes and adjustments we weren’t planning to make. It’ll be a long time before business returns to the levels of the past few years. In the meantime, the objective is to survive—and survival means applying increased effort and focus to make order out of the evolving chaos. Established systems tend to degrade naturally over time, and now we’re faced with the accelerated deterioration.

I recently posted an update on my Facebook page about “finally getting off press after a long day.” A colleague commented that I should know better than to work in my business as I should be working on my business. I smiled and chuckled to myself at this observation, realizing at that point the full extent of what is really going on.


Mark A. Coudray is president of Coudray Graphic Technologies, San Luis Obispo, CA. He has served as a director of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association Int'l and as chairman of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology. Coudray has authored more than 250 papers and articles, and he received the SGIA's Swormstedt Award in 1992 and 1994.





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