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Arun Hariharan

Risk Management

If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It

The best time for permanent improvement is when there is no problem

Published: Thursday, September 7, 2017 - 11:02

In the last week of August 2017, two extreme weather events occurred on opposite sides of the world. Hurricane Harvey brought record-breaking rain and catastrophic flooding to Houston, Texas, causing loss of life, mass evacuation of people, and damage estimated to be in billions of dollars. Around the same time, Mumbai, India, received extremely heavy monsoon rains, flooding roads, crippling the city’s public transport, and stranding thousands of people.

Reports say that one reason why Houston is particularly prone to flooding—apart from geographical factors—is “the lack of a will or policy to get serious about flood control.’’ The report blames ‘‘rampant urban expansion where concrete has gotten priority over maintaining green space.” It adds that an earlier hurricane in 2008 prompted discussions about building coastal flooding protections, ‘‘but that didn’t go anywhere.”

In Mumbai, a cloudburst in 2005 brought the heaviest rains and worst floods in the city in recent history, causing loss of many lives and devastation that took years to recover from. The reasons for recurring flooding and crippling of Mumbai during the rains are not too different from Houston: urban sprawl, ever-expanding concrete jungles, diminishing green space, drainage systems that can’t cope, and inadequate preventive actions.

While a lot of relief work is done during such calamities by both citizens and the government (and rightly so), clearly not enough is done about finding the root causes of the problem and taking preventive action. In other words, we don’t seem to be learning any lessons from such events.

What’s the best time to think about and implement preventive steps such as increasing green space, and building flood protections and better drainage systems? Certainly not in the midst of the storm. That is the time for fire-fighting’ (or flood-fighting) or taking actions to ensure immediate survival. However, after such disasters (like Hurricane Ike in Houston in 2008 or Mumbai’s record-breaking rains in 2005), once the situation becomes somewhat normal, people seem to just go back to life as usual without bothering about how to prevent similar problems in future or how to cope better.

Thus, finding root causes and implementing permanent solutions to the problem take a back seat, both during a disaster (for obvious reasons), and also after the disaster (for some strange reason).

Similar situations are not uncommon in business and other organizations. When there are quality problems or customer complaints, often there is an immediate reaction to try and pacify irate customers. But once the storm blows over, do we use the problem as an opportunity for root cause analysis and make a permanent improvement in the process to prevent the problem from recurring? Or do we miss the opportunity?

The best time to permanently fix the process is now. During normal times, we often get lulled into thinking that there is no problem. For example, during a year of moderate rain, we may falsely believe that our drainage systems, green spaces, and other anti-flooding measures are adequate. This despite the fact that only the previous year saw devastating floods. Such complacency often brings disastrous consequences and totally avoidable problems. When faced with a problem, what is the best time to reflect, analyze the problem, find the root causes, and make permanent process improvements? Clearly, the best time is as soon as the immediate firefighting is over. If Mumbai and Houston had done this in 2005 and 2008, respectively, they would have not suffered as much in 2017.

Although this seems logical enough, why is root cause analysis and preventive action the exception rather than the norm? Whether it’s a city or a business, perhaps it’s because the moment one fire is doused, we have a new one to fight. If we need to choose between fighting fire No. 2 (which is burning right now), or figuring out how to prevent fire No. 1 from flaring up again in future—especially if the same person is responsible for both jobs—obviously, fighting the fire that is burning right now will take priority. Unfortunately, by the time fire No. 2 is put out, fire No. 3 must be fought, and so on.

Have a team whose full-time job is permanent improvement. One solution to the problem of too many fires to fight and no time for permanent improvement, which worked well in companies I’ve been associated with, was to have a few people whose full-time job is continuous permanent improvement. This team will not spend its time in firefighting or quick, temporary fixes, but focus all its time and attention to root cause analysis and permanent process improvements. Organizations that did this in a sustained manner over a period of time found that they could reduce the number of firefighters for the simple reason that there were fewer fires—or floods.


About The Author

Arun Hariharan’s picture

Arun Hariharan

Arun Hariharan, author of Continuous Permanent Improvement (ASQ 2014), and The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook (ASQ 2015) is a strategic quality, knowledge management (KM), and performance management practitioner with nearly three decades of experience in these fields. He has worked with several large companies and helped them achieve substantial and sustained results through quality and customer focus. He is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach, a company that provides partnership, consulting, and training in business excellence and related areas. Former roles held by Hariharan include president of quality and knowledge management at Reliance Capital Ltd, and senior vice-president of quality and knowledge management at Bharti Airtel Ltd, India. He is a frequent speaker at quality and KM events around the world. He is also the author of more than 50 published papers on quality and KM.



Unfortunately, standard accounting practice will show this activity as "non-value added".

Translation: We can save money by axing these drags on profitablity!

One quote I have never forgotten: "Money is too imporatant to leave to accountants!"