RSS Feed

The Hammer Problem


November 30, 2012 by Mike Hillwig

We’re having a little issue in my environment: Some people aren’t following the rules.

We have rules and processes to make sure that things are done properly and consistently. But somehow, some people just don’t follow the rules. My coworker and I were lamenting on the situation the other day, and I simply responded “I don’t think my opinion will add much value to this conversation. You know how I feel about the subject.”

And I told him that this was really a hammer problem. We can put all kinds of technologies and processes in place to prevent human mistakes. And we can do everything we can try to ensure people follow the rules. But ultimately, the problem can be solved with the purchase of a hammer. Do you know what the hammer is for?

The hammer is to beat people who don’t follow the rules.

Now, clearly I’m not advocating violence here. Rather, I’m using it as a metaphor.

This is NOT a technology problem. It’s a people problem. Unless you have a method of penalizing people who don’t follow the rules, they have no incentive to follow them. Better yet, you have a method for rewarding people for doing things properly.

Many years ago, we had a problem at a manufacturing facility where I worked. The system would print out a work order that contained the “recipe” for what was to be made. And the guys in the plant kept making the wrong thing. It didn’t take too long to figure out the problem. It seems they had an incentive in their contract that paid them more when certain products were made, even if that’s not what they were supposed to be making. And like many business problems, the business turned to IT to help solve it.

We sat in meetings for hours trying to come up with ways to reinforce what needed to be made. They talked about putting in big TVs with the “recipe” on it. They talked about using different printers with different colors of inks. This was all mainframe-based stuff, so the solutions were going to be expensive. I finally looked at my boss’ boss and asked for his Amex. He asked what I wanted to buy. I told him about the hammer. I finally blurted “This isn’t a technology problem! This is an HR problem!” The room went dead silent.

My mentor at IBM used to ask the question “What is the real problem we’re trying to solve here?” And that’s what came to play. We were trying to use technology to fix a buesiness problem without addressing the actual issue at hand. There was some old contract provision that was coming back to bite the company. Sure, we could spend a bazillion dollars to put the right recipe in people’s hands, but until they have an incentive to get it right (or a penalty for getting it wrong) the problem would persist.

One of the things I learned very early in my career is that technology, when used improperly, can allow you to do a bad practice much faster. Unless your technology implementations include updating your business processes, you’re just going to spin your wheels.

After my little outburst, the meeting was adjourned. My boss didn’t say much to me, although his displeasure with me was pretty clear. I was certainly out of line, but the sad part is that I was right. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that I stepped on the third rail of a steel company: the union contract. I’m not sure what happened after that. I do know that I wasn’t invited to any more meetings about the subject. And it wasn’t much longer before the company went belly-up, all of the contract IT staff let go, and then got bought out by a competitor.