Fix It Before It’s Broken

Hour to hour, day to day, and month to month, you are changing. Whether you realize it or not, every seemingly insignificant decision, human interaction, choice of food, or thought pattern is a small building block that, when multiplied over time, has the potential to form the habits and patterns which will define your life. This is true for people and businesses. Tomorrow you might not notice the affect of your choices today, but in 6-months or a year all of those tiny actions have amassed into the person or business you are in the present moment. Staying the same is a form of change because it is in opposition of moving forward. This is why the old adage “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” is so dangerous. The “not broken, don’t fix it” mentality allows people or businesses to settle into present day comfort, which can ultimately lead to future discomfort; and not the good kind of discomfort that promotes growth. If you or your business’s mentality is to maintain current conditions because things are going well right now at the expense of investing time and resources in continuous improvement, you will be one step behind the people or organizations that put all of their effort into getting better every day.

Image from http://www.hamiltonclaimssolutions.co.uk/blog/if-it-isnt-broken-dont-fix-it

Entire industries that were not necessarily broken have had someone come in with a new idea and change the flow of billions of dollars. Ask the taxi industry about Uber and Lyft. Ask the hotel industry about Airbnb. Ask Blockbuster about Netflix. Ask the retail giants about Amazon. “Fixing things before they break—preemptive transformation, we call it—is an absolute necessity,” writes Boston Consulting Group managing director and senior partner Grant Freeland. 1 What you do now creates who you are tomorrow. The Japanese philosophy of kaizen, kai = change and zen = good, is used to mean continuous improvement. Having the belief that everything can be better tomorrow than it is today is fundamental for innovation, improvement, and, ultimately, survival. My core philosophy as a person is to try and get better; smarter, in better shape, more emotionally intelligent, nicer to other people, etc. Kaizen teaches that making small improvements every day will increase improvements exponentially over time. New York Times bestselling author of Atomic Habits James Clear’s concept of 1% better explains this; he says “If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.” 2 The bottom line is this: are you coasting and maintaining, or innovating and advancing?

Image from https://www.plexusconsulting.co.nz/blog/post/59180/the-170-000-opportunity/

The philosophy of continuous improvement is forward thinking, rather than the “not broken, don’t fix it” mentality which maintains, and is therefore backward thinking; if you are not moving forward, you have already begun the backward slide. Freeland says most business metrics like earnings, cash flow, and profits are backward looking; “They tell you how the company performed in the last quarter, or the last year, and compare it to the previous quarter or year. They don’t tell you that the course you’ve charted is thick with underwater mines and in shark-infested waters.” 1 Changing things just for the sake of changing is not the point. “We’re talking about change for the sake of increased growth and continued success,” says Freeland. 1 I am not saying that companies do not think about and plan for the future. But, “It’s the unfortunate tendency of many successful companies to coast. Sure, they may continue to promote innovation and invest significantly in R&D. But psychologically they’re on autopilot, assuming that momentum will carry them safely into the future” (Freeland). 1 Unfortunately most of my friends work for companies that have failed to build continuous improvement into the core philosophy of their culture. A lot of people I know fail to make continuous improvement part of their daily life. When you see someone from your past and they say “you have changed,” that should be a good thing.

I found a page of comment responses to an article called The “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” Mentality. The conversation in the comments is fantastic (click the link in my sources if you are interested). Under the name sophacles, one commenter says: “People don’t like change, particularly when they don’t understand what is going on already. It is a sunk-cost fallacy. They invested a bunch of effort in learning the old way, which they didn’t fully understand, but apparently it worked, so the(y) accepted it. Now a new way comes along, claiming to be better, but once again, they don’t understand it fully, so they just see it as an attack on the way they had been doing stuff — which in a lot of people’s minds translates to an attack on them. When this happens they start justifying ‘It was fine the old way, I don’t see why they had to change it.'” 3 People are scared of change. But just like not voting is a form of voting, not changing is a form of changing. Not changing is changing backwards. A key point here is people not understanding the “why” of changes. If there is no understanding of why a change is being made, the change itself will be looked at as unnecessary. But if you can say things like this change will increase (or decrease) “x” by 10%, which will be better for the entire team and keep our jobs secure in the future,” people can get behind it because they see the outcome is good. There has to be that communication and understanding of why. Uncertainty can create fear, and therefore cause people to shrink back into what is safe and comfortable. When that happens, innovation and improvement has been stifled by the fear of change.

Another fear surrounding change for both people and businesses is that they don’t want to mess up something that is going well. That makes sense. But the only reason there is fear about damaging the current way of doing things is because changes are often thought of as needing to be big. Big changes can impact the current way of doing things, positively or negatively. Senior Engineering Manager Jon Archer writes about change, saying “… I think it’s all about degree. If there’s a potentially worthwhile pay off, if it’s reasonably cheap to try, maybe it is well worth changing things that aren’t especially broken.” 4 With less risk, change is less scary. Testing new ideas can expose other areas that need improvement and you can learn other ways to move forward. Archer says “And if it doesn’t pan out? That should be OK. Trying new things involves some risk. Sometimes things don’t work and you need to revert to the original way of doing things.” 4 As long as the changes you are testing out don’t drastically affect your product, service, or other fundamental practice, Archer says “I’d argue that trying new things should be encouraged.”

Implementing the practice of thinking about change is critical, however. Your personal or company culture should include a lot of thinking about change. Thinking about how to improve should be at the top of the to-do list. And let’s say the idea for change will have a major impact on the current way of doing things. Archer says when you are “thinking of a disruptive or expensive change, and the outcome is uncertain, and what you’re already doing is seemingly OK, perhaps that’s a red flag.” 4 Not all ideas are good ideas, and even good ideas don’t always work. On the one hand, don’t get carried away and start making changes that could have a huge negative impact without testing, but on the other hand don’t just fall back on the current way of doing things by saying “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” The process of brainstorming, developing hypotheses, testing, analyzing results, and developing a strategy to move forward (which CAN mean leaving things the way they are) should be as important for an individual person or business as it is for a scientist. Finding out what won’t work is just as important as finding out what will work. But if creativity, innovation, and continuous improvement are not part of your core philosophy, you might as well accept that someone else is going to step past you.

Image from https://www.torbenrick.eu/blog/change-management/change-management-comic-strips/amp/

Making kaizen, small consistent improvements, a key part of the equation both eliminates some of the risk involved with change, and makes innovation the expectation. “In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. (In other words, it won’t impact you very much today.) But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t,” writes James Clear. 2 The people or companies that are able to get a little bit better every day will win in the long run. Both life and business are more of a marathon that a sprint.

The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is “widely attributed to Gainesville, Georgia-born Thomas Bertram Lance, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget during Jimmy Carter’s Presidency” says Senior Technology Editor for ZDNet Jason Perlow.5 Perlow writes “Bert Lance is paraphrased by an unidentified author in Page 33 of the newsletter of the US Chamber of Commerce, Nation’s Business, in May of 1977.” 5 Bert Lance may have popularized the term, but the idea behind it is old. Think back thousands of years to stone age or hunter-gatherer societies. For ancient humans, change could mean life or death. Phrases.org explains the ancient origins of the “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mentality. “Prehistoric hand-axes were made by repeatedly chipping small flakes off pebbles of flint with other hard objects. Million-year-old examples of these have been found that give the impression of being ruined by being chipped just one time too many.” 6 Using the tool that was good enough, going back to the spot where edible food was known to be growing, or not changing the pattern followed by the herds of animals were essential to survival. Change could mean starvation and death. Safety meant following trusted practices. Unfortunately, modern humans still carry this fear. Today, change most likely won’t lead to starvation and death, but the fear of change leads people to stick with what is comfortable. Sitting in safety is more comfortable than stepping forward into change.

Image from https://www.britannica.com/technology/history-of-technology/Technology-in-the-ancient-world

Lucky for all humankind, there have been those throughout history that have taken the risk and had it pay off in big ways. I believe that as whole, humans have craved safety. But humans also have the desire to improve and innovate. When the risk of death by starvation became less of an issue through the agricultural revolution and the domestication of animals, certain members of society were free to test, innovate, discover, and produce the tools, technologies, and ideas that stay with us today. Again, there are two sides of the scale: not making drastic changes that put people or companies at risk while still allowing for creativity and improvement. I often think about how much more advanced civilization would be today if more people had been willing or able to use the most important resource we all have; or minds. Kings, conquerors, governments, religions, and mass manual labor have all stifled change and innovation throughout history. Modern companies should not continue this pattern. Innovative thinking, continuous improvement, and testing of ideas need to be at the forefront. I have heard is said that the most ideas for new companies or inventions can be found in a graveyard. How many great ideas have died in the minds of people who never had the chance to try them out?

In his incredible book 1491, author Charles Mann combines science, history, and archaeology to tell the story and alter our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. One page that stood out to me, and ironically in a book about the Americas, was about a Chinese invention and the impact on European farmers. I will include the entire section. Mann writes:

” … the Chinese invented the moldboard plow by the third century B.C. Made of cast iron, the plowshare was shaped like a V, with the blade curing into the ground and the two arms arcing away like gull wings. Because the arms were curved, they turned the earth away from the blade, which both reduced friction and more effectively plowed the soil.

The design of the moldboard plow is so obvious that is seems incredible that Europeans never thought of it. Until the Chinese-style plow was imported in the seventeenth century, farmers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and other states labored to shove what amounted to a narrow slab of metal through the earth. “The increased friction meant that huge multiple teams of oxen were required, whereas the Chinese plows could make do with a single ox,” (Robert) Temple explained (in his book The Genius of China). The European failure to think up the moldboard, according to science historian Tersis, was “as if Henry Ford designed the car without an accelerator, and you had to put the car in neutral, brake, and go under the hood to change speed. And then we did this for 2,000 years.”

European agricultural production exploded after the arrival of the moldboard plow. The prosperity this engendered was one of the cushions on which the Enlightenment floated. “So inefficient, so wasteful of effort, and so utterly exhausting” was the old plow, Temple wrote, “that this deficiency of plowing may rank as mankind’s single greatest waste of time and energy.” Millions of Europeans spent centuries behind the plow, starting at the blade as it ineffectively mired itself in the earth. How could none of them have thought of changing the design to make the plow more useful?7

Image from https://www.history.com/news/han-dynasty-inventions

The European style of plow wasn’t broken. It worked, although with exceptionally more time and effort. It would be impossible to calculate the number of hours and lives expended in Europe over the 2,000 years before the introduction of the moldboard plow. Generations of people toiling in the soil, wasting time and energy, without coming up with a better way to do it. Most likely, any time spent NOT working in the field could lead to less crops and, therefore, less income or food on the table. To stop working and try to invent something new might have literally lead to starvation and death. But what was lost, in those extra hours of manual labor? How many ideas, inventions, or works of art could have been created if millions of people had more free time?

The speed in which technology changes nowadays is staggering. Staying ahead of the curve and fixing things before they are broken is more important that ever. Fredrik Nilsson, Vice President of the Americas for Axis Communications writes that “if you work in the IT industry, fixing things as they break just isn’t good enough. Here, when something is ‘broken,’ that usually means attackers have already breached its defenses. Responding to an attack by patching that vulnerability is a necessary step, but placing emphasis on preventing the next attack is critical.” 8 This leads to my final point. Responding after something is broken is reactive, but fixing something before it is broken is proactive. Those people or companies that are proactive will be a step ahead, and everyone else will just be reacting to the changes made.

“Taxi driving in U.S. cities like New York and Chicago has been a regulated industry since at least the 1930s. A limited number of medallions, representing a licensing fee paid to the city, were issued to taxicab owners,” writes journalist Michael Goldstein. 9 Those who were able to obtain a taxi medallion had a “nest egg;” 9 they were secure and could coast on their success. Goldstein says “… the medallion system, which limited the number of livery vehicles, has been bypassed by the ride-share giants” (Uber, Lyft, etc). 9 A taxi medallion in New York was once worth a million dollars as recently as 2014, but are now worth $170,000, according to Goldstein when his article was published in 2018 for Forbes. 9 Protests and lawsuits by taxi drivers “are seen as the equivalent of putting one’s finger in the dike to hold back the tide of progress.” 9 For the people who were once comfortable because of their medallion, “that transition may be a difficult one.” 9

Image from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelgoldstein/2018/06/08/uber-lyft-taxi-drivers/?sh=66d1f69d59f0

Grant Freeland summed it up best, in regards to the companies or industries who are coasting. Eventually, he writes, “… they hit that mine. The sharks start circling. And they realize—sometimes too late—that they need to change.” 1 Therefore, “Waiting until something is obviously broken before you fix it is often too late.” What we need are more people and companies thinking about the long term. More people and companies that create new ways of doing things. More small, continuous improvements. More seeing what COULD break and fixing it before it does. “Being responsive is no longer enough,” says Nilsson. 8

Do you want to be feebly protesting against the competition as they blow past you, or taking continual steps forward into the future? Innovate, create, change for the better, and you will be on the right path.

Lets keep the conversation going and continue to learn and grow together! Please like, comment, or share and feel free to reach out to me.

-Tyson Simmons

Sources:

1. Preemptive Transformations: Even If It Ain’t Broke, You Still Oughta Fix It, by Grant Freeland, Jul 22, 2019,07:24am EDT, accessed 1/24/2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/grantfreeland/2019/07/22/preemptive-transformations-even-if-it-aint-broke-you-still-oughta-fix-it/?sh=3f2b2d276313

2. Continuous Improvement: How It Works and How to Master It, by James Clear, accessed 1/24/2021, https://jamesclear.com/continuous-improvement

3. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1442003

4. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” vs. “Continuous improvement”, by Jon Archer,  Mar. 18, 2011, accessed 1/24/2021, https://dzone.com/articles/if-it-aint-broke-dont-fix-it

5. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’? Bad advice can break your business, by Jason Perlow, April 8, 2014, accessed 1/24/2021, https://www.zdnet.com/article/if-it-aint-broke-dont-fix-it-bad-advice-can-break-your-business/

6. The meaning and origin of the expression: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/if-it-aint-broke-dont-fix-it.html

7. 1491, by Charles Mann, Second Vintage Books Edition, July 2011, Copyright 2005, 2006, 2011 by Charles C. Mann. Publisher : Vintage; 1st edition (October 10, 2006), Language : English, Paperback : 541 pages, ISBN-10 : 1400032059, ISBN-13 : 978-1400032051, https://www.amazon.com/1491-Revelations-Americas-Before-Columbus/dp/1400032059

8. If It Ain’t Broke — Fix It, by Fredrik Nilsson, Aug 14, 2019, accessed 1/24/2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2019/08/14/if-it-aint-broke-fix-it/?sh=4759927e25d5

9. Dislocation And Its Discontents: Ride-Sharing’s Impact On The Taxi Industry, by Michael Goldstein, Jun 8, 2018, accessed 1/24/2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelgoldstein/2018/06/08/uber-lyft-taxi-drivers/?sh=66d1f69d59f0

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