Redundancy is good, resiliency is better

As businesses grow, inevitable specialization occurs, where a certain process is done only by one person who is really good at it. This has its benefits. Now the charismatic guy with no possibility of being consistent isn’t responsible for budgets, but can concentrate on selling. Now the gal with the cutting sarcasm and a knack for numbers can concentrate on the bookkeeping instead of having to deal with cranky customers.

However, specialization has its drawbacks as well. The primary one is that eventually, an increasingly specialized work force breaks the Mack Truck Rule:

If any one person gets run over by a Mack Truck, the business must still be able to function.

After a crisis, such as a sudden termination or a medical emergency, businesses are left in a pinch–the person they relied on for so many years is gone, and there is nobody who can do her work. Nobody really knows how George set up the website after they changed web hosts. Nobody is quite sure how Susan mixed the Candy Cane Espresso that the customers like so much. Nobody really knows how Nancy figured out the payroll every week. They just know it got done. So, with the pain fresh in their mind, managers vow to never let that happen again, and make sure that at least two people know the process. This is known as System Redundancy, or the duplication of critical components to make sure the system has less chance of failing.

However, redundancy doesn’t much help the second drawback to specialization: the fact that change becomes hard. This is due to the Theorem of Empathetic Change:

The better something is understood, the easier it is to change.

In fact, introducing redundancy can make change that much harder. Since there’s multiple people that have it under control, it seems that there is no need to worry, and certainly no need to spend additional money on a process that’s working well. Redundancy can take the pain out of a process, which saps all the drive out of anybody wanting to make that process better.

Besides, if changing the behavior of one person is hard, changing the behavior of two is more than twice as hard. Now, instead of convincing a single salesman that it’s time to start concentrating on aluminum mills, not just iron foundries, you have to convince him and the marketing director, who fills in for the salesman when he’s on vacation. And besides, since neither you nor anybody else in the company really knows what they do when they’re selling, it’s tough to say just how big a change it is you’re proposing.

Remember, just because two people understand something, it doesn’t mean that others in the company can. Better, then, to make sure the critical process that any one person does can easily be picked up by another person. And doing this is extraordinarily simple, but mind-numbingly boring: write the process down. Sometimes people refer to these as Process Manuals, some as Standard Operating Procedures. Others make them into Training Guides, still others make Checklists.

These written instructions give the business an important advantage:  Resilience. Now, come what may, you can do what another did yesterday by thumbing through the three-ring binder, or checking out the company wiki, or looking at the checklist doc on the server. Sure, it won’t be easy if you’ve never done it before, but at least it is possible.

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