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Why a business should be like a caterpillar

My parents have a caterpillar on their dining table.  It’s about 2½ inches long and made of bright green plastic.  When you wind it up, it crawls along and makes people laugh.

If you turn the caterpillar over, you find it’s made of a series of sections linked by a simple mechanism that consists mainly of a series of hooks and a rubber band.  This is tightened with a winder and then releases slowly, allowing the caterpillar to move along in a straight line.

The thing about the caterpillar is that, yes, it’s designed to be attractive so that people buy it.  But aesthetics aside, everything about it is designed to make it do what it’s designed for: to crawl across a flat surface and entertain people in the process (until it unwinds, when you just wind it up again).

The same applies to a complex machine like a car.  Essentially, it’s a piece of equipment designed to let people drive themselves, with or without passengers, from A to B.  Depending on the make and model, the car will have a certain amount of added luxury, but the basic purpose remains the same.

A business should be the same.  Every function in the business, every role, every individual person, should have a precise purpose and fit perfectly into the overall scheme of things.   If that happens, you can be sure that the business is 100% efficient: that nothing and nobody is doing anything to pull against the ultimate objective.So why is it that so few businesses take this approach?  These days, most businesses know that they should have a fully thought-out business strategy and a marketing strategy to support it.  But when it comes to operations, things are much less clearly defined.  As a business grows, individuals are given their own areas of responsibility.  Further growth and these areas of responsibility turn into departments.Typically, each department has its own goals, and this is where things can go seriously awry.  First, it’s very easy, for all the right reasons, to end up with a situation where the goals set for one department actually undermine those set for another.  Second, because departments often develop their own processes independently of what’s going on elsewhere in the business, they don’t necessarily fit into the overall scheme.  They may think they are doing a good job, but without proper consultation outside their own boundaries, they may end up doing the wrong things or not enough of the right ones.  Hence the typical comment, which I often hear, of “department x only does part of the job/doesn’t know what it’s doing/???”.It’s a really strange concept, when you think about it.  If you were building cars, you wouldn’t let all the different areas of the shop floor design their own components and fit them into the overall assembly in any way they chose?  You’d end up with wheels facing the wrong way or windscreen washers attached to the boot.  It simply doesn’t make sense.

For a business to succeed, once it’s established its business and marketing strategies, it needs an operations strategy that includes a specification of how the business will work as  a whole and what each and every department, activity and individual needs to contribute – and when.  Only after that can you design the individual processes and recruit people to carry them out.

In other words, a business should be like a product: designed as a complete assembly and then optimised to function as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Once that’s done, you’ll have a business that’s like my parents’ caterpillar.

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