Much earlier in my career, I had many conversations with a friend whom I’ll call “Fred” (I call him that because that’s his name) about problems in organizations and what to do about them. Those conversations often lasted well into the night. We didn’t solve world hunger, but we did solve many organizational problems. Even though our discussions took place almost 20 years ago, they are just as relevant to business today as they were then.
Fred had a name for things that didn’t work the way they were supposed to, and which forced people to find ways around the problem. He called them “swamps.” Swamps could be processes, computer systems, bottlenecks, policies or people. The common ingredient was that everyone had to find ways to navigate past them.
A department that is too backlogged to get work done in a timely manner—resulting in customer service calls and complaints—is a swamp. A computer system that doesn’t handle a certain transaction correctly and causes a workaround is a swamp. A procedure that requires the signature of someone who isn’t always available or who sits on the paperwork is a swamp. Most people have no problem identifying swamps; every organization seems to have some hanging around. Many times, organizations become so used to working around an issue that they accept it as the norm, not a problem.
Fred and I believed that each time an organization created a workaround or revised their activities in any way to accommodate an inefficiency, they were building a bridge over the swamp. When they did something different to avoid the swamp, they were building a path around it. The real solution, we agreed, was to stop building those bridges over and paths around the problems. Instead, drain the swamp—just fix the problem.
It was surprising then—and is still surprising now—that the stroke of the pen can almost entirely fix many swamps. Sometimes it is as simple as someone saying, “Let’s stop requiring a second signature” or “Let’s stop filing an extra copy of those documents.” Not all swamp issues have stroke-of-the-pen resolutions, but many have solutions that are not that difficult to implement.
Whether draining the swamp involves a little re-engineering or updating an outdated system, the results are worthwhile. People’s jobs become easier, more work is accomplished, and the work is done faster. A side benefit of swamp draining is a new operational tone that conveys “We’re here to do things right—and we will!”
The steps to fixing swamps are easy to follow:
- Identify the swamp issues.
- Document how the swamp is being bridged or worked around.
- Determine how often they occur (every transaction or only once in a while?)
- Find the low-hanging fruit (things that can be fixed with minimal activity or by just stopping something).
- Drain the swamps that are easy to fix, that really impede accomplishment and that impact a significant number of transactions.
Draining the swamp is not that hard, and it pays great dividends to the organization. It allows you to get rid of those “muck boots” people have to wear to get things done. And, you just do business better.
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