If your organisation needed to save £300,000, would you think about making people redundant? Re-structuring? Business process re-engineering? Or would it occur to you to cancel the olives that you are serving with lunch?
An American Airlines flight attendant took the time to notice that many of her passengers did not eat the olives in their salads. She thought this observation might be useful and passed this observation up the chain of command. It was eventually discovered that the airline was charged by its food supplier for salads based on the number of items they contained. The cost for a salad with one to four items was less than a salad with five to eight items. And the uneaten olives, it turned out, were the fifth item in the American Airlines salad. When the airline dropped the olives and switched to a four-item salad, it saved five hundred thousand dollars a year.
[from Robert E. Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the kaizen way, pp. 161-2.]
The assumption that big problems need big solutions is natural and beguiling. It gets our brains whirring and we come up with big ideas, grand schemes and elaborate plans. And those schemes can be intimidating – too big to implement. So we can all too easily end up doing nothing at all. Or we start to implement them, and it all becomes too hard, and we give up.
Another approach is to question our assumption instead: that big problems need big solutions.
Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades… There is a clear asymmetry between the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution. Big problem, small solution.
[From Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: how to change things when change is hard, p. 44.]
Big problems may need small solutions
So big problems may need small solutions. And more than likely, more than one small solution. And sometimes the first step towards a solution can be embarrassingly, trivially, or comically small. In One Small Step, Robert Maurer tells the story of someone who wanted to stop taking sugar in her tea. So the next time she went to add sugar to her tea, she gently removed one grain of sugar from the teaspoon. The time after that it was two grains… Pretty soon she had cut out sugar altogether. Robert also writes about people who buy a chocolate bar but throw away the first square… then two squares…
These ridiculously small actions also have the benefit of being ridiculously easy. They’re so easy you can start straight away. That’s a huge advantage over elaborate schemes.
I wrote this blog post by setting myself the goal of working on it for just one minute a day. That made it fun – all I had to do was write a sentence or two, or find the right page number for the quote I was using. And most days I did a bit more than a minute – because I felt like it. In just 10 days I had a finished blog post – the first one I’ve written for nearly a year. This stuff works…
What is the biggest problem you are facing now? And what could be a very tiny step – embarrassingly small – that you could take right now to move you in the right direction? Share your ideas in the comments below and I’ll respond!