In the classic Road Runner cartoons, you often see this when the Road Runner starts to run: His feet start moving, but the bird himself stays in place.
Only when the feet get up to speed does the bird start moving—instantaneously going from zero to top speed. Road Runner narrowly escapes the clutches of Wile E. Coyote. Again.
Like so many phenomena in cartoons, this sequence of events defies the laws of physics. It implies the friction between the Road Runner’s feet and the ground doesn’t exist at first, and kicks in only when his feet come up to full speed.
In physics, friction is the force impeding the motion of one surface in direct contact with another. In most mechanical systems, friction is bad because it increases the energy required to move objects against one another (such as a piston in a cylinder). Reducing fiction increases the efficiency of the system.
(In the Road Runner’s case, friction is a good thing—without it, the bird’s feet would keep spinning in place. He would easily become the coyote’s next meal.)
Organizational Friction and Its Types
The concept of friction is useful as a metaphor to describe trends within organizations. For purposes of this discussion, organizational friction is anything that makes business processes less efficient or effective than they could be. In this article, we discuss the types of organizational friction, how to identify sources of friction in your organization, and how to address them.
At AndPlus, we often work with clients on digital transformation projects. One of the goals of any properly defined digital transformation project should be to reduce, as much as possible, the friction in one or more experiences or business processes. This should increase overall organizational efficiency. In order to reduce the organizational friction, we work with clients to identify its sources. In a Friction Assessment engagement, we identify and evaluate the causes and impacts of organizational friction across four dimensions:
- Experience – Where are there pain points in the experience for users and stakeholders? What are the upstream or downstream factors contributing to friction or that will be impacted by any changes?
- People – Are roles & responsibilities clear? Do people need to evolve their skills? Is there alignment of priorities across key teams? Does the culture nurture the behaviors needed to be successful?
- Process – Where is there waste and friction-causing inefficiencies in the operating processes? What are the opportunities to refine and optimize? Are the appropriate controls in place for compliance and accountability? What can be automated to focus people on the highest value work?
- Technology – Does the IT ecosystem support the business needs? Are there ways to work around the technology constraints? Are there integration challenges? What tools and capabilities would improve outcomes?
An effective assessment of organizational friction should examine all four dimensions. Excluding any of them runs the risk of solving only part of the problem—or potentially exacerbating the problem.
Identifying Sources of Friction
Factors in each of the four dimensions can contribute to myriad sources of friction. These factors can, over time, become a complex interrelated chain or “bowl of spaghetti” making it difficult to unravel and identify their root causes.
Sometimes you can go down a path leading to something that isn’t an actual source of friction. Sometimes you don’t go far enough to find the actual friction source and end up “solving” the wrong problem or introducing new ones. Accurate identification of friction sources takes discipline, honesty, and the ability to step back and see the problem from an outsider’s perspective.
A good place to start looking for sources of friction are the key metrics an organization uses to measure its health. Most organizations have key performance indicators (KPIs) or objectives and key results (OKRs) that they have developed to make strategic and tactical decisions. These metrics are critical in assessing whether the company is performing as expected and where there are challenges that need to be addressed.
Assuming these KPIs are measuring the right things and are complete and accurate, you can examine trends in these metrics and ask questions about them. The key question to ask is: “Why?” and to keep asking it until you find the root cause. (Channel your inner toddler: Why? Why? Why? Why?... But why?”)
Q: Why is Product X frequently on backorder?
A: Because the production process takes too long.
Q: Why does the production process take so long?
A: Because the quality control (QC) testing results are reviewed and approved by the Director of Quality, who often doesn’t have time to do it. This answer indicates the friction – in this example, a bottleneck in the process due to required human intervention.
However, you have to keep probing to understand the cause of the friction:
Q: Why does the director of quality have to review and approve the QC results?
A: This review step was added to the process four years ago when an audit uncovered QC paperwork was being falsified.
Q: Why was the paperwork being falsified?
A: Because there was intense pressure from upper management to get that product shipped on time, and there was a culture of fear that punished bearers of bad news.
At this point, the obvious follow-up questions are:
Q: Does that pressure and culture of fear still exist?
Q: Does Product X still have the quality issues that drove employees to falsify the QC records?
If the answers are both “no,” then the root cause has been identified and the friction can be resolved by simply eliminating the review step. If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then you have identified larger challenges causing the backorder situation and resolution means addressing issues in more than just the Process dimension.
Not every situation is this straightforward. Often it takes some detective work to get to and verify root causes. But this example shows it’s not enough to identify the friction itself; if the culture of fear still exists, then eliminating the review step alone might result in more QC falsifications. Bottom line: make sure you’ve identified the real root cause(s) to avoid unintended and avoidable negative consequences.
Sometimes addressing and eliminating a source of friction is simple and straightforward, but more often, it’s not that simple. In the example above, if the culture of fear still existed, things need to change. That’s not something that happens overnight and I have yet to see culture change because of process improvements alone.
An organization should also examine the costs and benefits of eliminating a source of friction. Sometimes the cost of eliminating a source of friction is so high that it will take many years for it to pay for itself. If the friction cause is otherwise benign, then you might be better off just living with it or de-prioritizing it in a backlog. Be careful in making this assessment of “cost” to put yourself in the impacted parties’ shoes – something determined to be inconsequential might have a significant organizational impact. For example, adding 10 seconds to a call time could be grating to customers and it might be a very big deal when it is happening to 1,000 call center employees handling thousands of calls each week.
The Importance of The Outsider’s Perspective
It’s possible for many sources of friction to be identified and addressed within the organization. But it’s often beneficial to enlist an objective outsider’s help. An outsider doesn’t have the history nor the emotional attachment that can cause employees to be protective of the status quo. And outsider is also usually helpful in challenging with the “Why?” questions and continuing to dig beneath the surface because they don’t assume they know the answers.
For more than a decade, AndPlus has been helping clients drive digital transformation. With each engagement, we work to help clients identify and address their sources of friction whether we’re talking transformation strategy or designing digital products. Contact us today to discuss how we can identify and eliminate friction and help you gain momentum on your digital transformation journey.