In his wonderful book, The Startup Way, Eric Ries discusses how startups have their own set of key metrics they track in order to gauge whether they are on the right track. Not only this, they typically have dashboards set up online for everyone to look at any time. This way, everyone is on the same page as to the health of the company. Moreover, key metrics are displayed throughout the office so that they are only a glance away from anyone at any given time. This transparency is something big firms would bristle at, while at startups, they’re the rule of the day. Well, why wouldn’t you want everyone to know where we stand at any time? Why would we hide? These conspicuous metrics give everyone knowledge right when they need it. They also allow everyone to answer the most important questions about the health of the company if they’re ever queried, which they may be. But more important than that, employees of startups should know their firm’s key metrics because they should care. If you’re that early on in a company’s history, you should want to know its health, its founders, its strategic direction, and especially its customers.
What is a tremendous waste of human effort and potential?
Ries also discusses his instance of leaving the building and going to visit an appliance manufacturer. Since he’s big on what customers actually do — not what they say they do or like — during the factory tour, he asked the executives present which of the buttons on the microwaves made there are pressed most often. They didn’t know. It wasn’t that they didn’t have the data; they did. He postulates that they didn’t want to look at it. Ries says when at home and using his microwave, he presses 5 buttons max. Most of the microwaves made at this factory had 29 buttons. Each button requires a specially skilled craftsman to wire them all in individually. He estimates that thousands upon thousands of buttons are hand-wired each shift into the microwaves that which no one will ever push. As he points out, flummoxed: this is a tremendous waste of human effort and potential. This is difficult, specialized, production work that no one will ever realize, nor utilize at the end-user level.
Think about this scenario from the appliance manufacturer executives’ perspective. Mr. Big-Shot-Silicon-Valley-Software-Guy comes into their plant, takes a look around, asks some rather pesky questions they don’t have the answer to, and unearths a rather dishearteningly negative idea about their entire production process. For if Eric only pointed out the production waste at the microwave area, what other areas are skilled workers producing things every single day that no one will ever use? Anybody have the answer to that one? These executives are likely proud of their work, their production team, their production environment, the metrics that matter to them, the company they work for, and are likely doing a good job running the business. Ries comes in and not only shakes the production cage, he questions the entire operation. “Very good, Mr. Ries. Thank you for coming. The door is right over there…”
Essential Drucker is essential because it can be so devastating. “There is nothing so useless as doing well that which need not be done at all,” is a devastating executive statement. It is also poignant. We’d rather look the other way. We’d rather not look at the data the appliances give us daily. We’d rather not know how many buttons most consumers push on their microwaves. We avert our gaze from the daily report. Questioning what we do on a daily basis professionally isn’t natural. Why the hell would we do that? What are we doing daily that need not be done?
Ries discusses how he once worked on a software project for 6 months only to discover that no one was using it. This is a painful discovery. Why would you devote devoted, caring human beings to performing professional-grade software development work on a product that no one will ever use?