Reducing Friction

A Samurai Lesson in Process Improvement
Tasks and processes often have hidden costs ("friction") that escape our notice. Learning to recognize and reduce needless friction can make a big difference on project cost and schedule, as well as team morale.

Physicists define friction as "a force that resists the motion of two objects that are in contact with each other." Place a brick on a dry, level sidewalk and give it a shove, it will quickly slow and stop without going very far. The energy of your push is quickly consumed by friction. Coat the sidewalk with ice, then shove with the same force and the brick travels farther. The slippery ice reduces the energy lost to friction for each meter the brick slides, letting the brick travel farther before the energy of your shove is consumed. In mechanical systems, friction can be an asset (the friction of brakes slows your car) or a liability (the friction of the air flowing around your moving car acts like an unwanted brake, wasting energy and reducing gas mileage).

Over the past few years I have become increasingly aware of the time, energy, and resources lost to needless "friction" in business tasks and processes. I secretly dreamed that popularizing the idea of needless friction as a liability to business systems might earn me a Nobel Prize in Economics, but discovered a man named Ronald Coase beat me to it1. Regardless of whoever gets credit for the metaphor, it is vitally important that managers learn to recognize and eliminate unnecessary friction from business processes.

Like examples of bad design, once you grasp this notion of energy needlessly lost to friction, you begin to see it everywhere. Business examples include:

    • Manually entering duplicate data into multiple systems
    • Requiring overcommitted technical people to engage in "value questionable" administrative tasks (e.g., "Fill out this form in triplicate and get it signed by two managers and then we will get you that box of paper clips.")
    • Requesting bids from multiple vendors when you already know which you will choose (this also wastes vendor time and energy, driving up everyone's costs)
    • Moving everyone from cubicles on one side of the building to cubicles on the other side of the building (Am I the only one who loses a week's worth of work?)
    • Limiting email storage space so severely that people must constantly monitor and delete email history (Note to operations: Can I just write you a check for $500 and get my team a few extra terabytes so we avoid this conversation until I retire in twenty years?)
    • Storing paper in a locked cabinet in a different room than the printer (e.g., "Sorry, Sally has the key, and she is on break.")

There is a subtle but important difference between rules and processes that generate needless friction and necessary administrative processes designed to prevent fraud or protect an organization and its clients. Most avoidable frictions I've observed in organizations probably began with legitimate business needs and degenerated into the time wasters they have become.

Processes that entail needless friction not only waste time and energy, they also become a significant drag on morale. When a project is in crunch mode, teams asked to "dig deep" and "give 100 percent" quickly become frustrated if they see a significant portion of their effort lost to friction. Leaders must remember their organization's goals and use that as a sword to cut non-essential friction from the team's work. Where process overhead is necessary, leaders must explain to a skeptical team how the overhead contributes to goals. If you can't explain why aspects of a business process are necessary, they probably aren't.

A Book of Five Rings is a seventeenth-century masterpiece on sword fighting written by Samurai Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi fought scores of duels to the death-the first at age 13-and survived to write his treatise and die of old age. Musashi was a master practitioner, not an arm-chair theorist. Throughout his book, he reminds students to remain goal focused as a matter of, quite literally, survival. In one passage, Musashi writes: 

"The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy's cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him."

While Musashi might seem obsessed, it's hard to argue with a guy who was undefeated for forty years. The processes Musashi describes-parrying, hitting, springing, etc.-are essential to sword fighting, but they are only useful if they support the goal: cutting your opponent and winning the duel. This is a useful lens for reviewing the processes established to support our organizational and project goals. The processes should clearly align with the goals.

Pay attention to unnecessary friction accompanying tasks and processes in your organization as you go through your day. Is there a sound rationale for the apparent friction? Where you encounter needless friction, do what you can to reduce or eliminate it. By doing so, you improve your organization's efficiency and ability to deliver. Repeat this process as needed. Share some of the energy you save by posting a comment below so others can benefit from your experience.

1Nobel Prize Foundation

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