The Art of Solving by Removing

Here’s a quick case study:

Imagine you’re a leader of a chain of an exclusive and luxurious day spa. Your spas supply expensive bottles of shampoo in your shower areas for clients to use. You also offer these bottles of shampoo for sale at the front desks.

Here’s the problem—many of the bottles in the shower end up missing. Not all bottles go missing, but enough gets lost to affect your business’ operating cost. How would you solve this problem without negatively affecting your clients?

Now PAUSE for a moment to think of solutions before reading further.

A cohort of corporate leaders were presented this case study by Prof. Gabe Adams, PhD., during an executive program at UVA Darden. Below are some of the responses from my peers in the class:

  • Increasing the membership cost to cover the cost of missing bottles.
  • Install wall-attached shampoo dispensers.
  • “Chain” the bottle to the wall.
  • Install a sensor to the bottle that would trigger an alarm if taken out the door.
  • Produce small, single-use portions of the shampoo to give at the front desk for the members.

The professor then argued, “Why not remove the caps from all the bottles in the showers? Wouldn’t that stop the bottles from (accidentally) ending up in the clients’ gym bags?”

Though this exercise was not meant to find the “right” answer, it helps make a point around a different way of solving problems. Instead of adding new equipment, policies, and attachments, think of things we can REMOVE from the situation to solve the problem.

For this instance, it was the bottle caps.

As leaders, especially in technology, we’re expected to solve problems, enable opportunities, and create efficiencies in processes. When presented with a problem, we instantly come up with ideas like:

  • What technology can we introduce to fix that?
  • Should we come up with a new process to solve the problem?
  • What new function can we add to address the situation?

Naturally, we think of innovative solutions we can add to resolve the problem. My challenge (to all of us) is to look at problems through the lens of the “shampoo heist.” What can we remove to solve a problem? What can we stop doing to enable efficiencies?

Regardless of our version of the “shampoo heist,” there are three things I recommend for all of us to consider

Overcome commitment bias

This is often correlated to the “sunk cost fallacy.” Believe it or not, it’s easier to overcome the dollar implications of the sunk cost fallacy. What I find is that it is more difficult is the servicing aspect. When I challenged my leaders on some things we should remove, the pushback is around not providing excellent, one-stop shop service.

You will not please everyone

Doing the right thing doesn’t always make everyone happy. Imagine your doctor telling you that you’re overweight and need to stop drinking soda and eat more vegetables. It’s not pleasant for the patient, but it’s the right advice.

Be logical and be analytical

Ensure the ability to measure the impact this move has to the business.

Business Case at the Service Desk

One of our team goals is to eliminate calls to the service desk that can be resolved through automation or self-service tools. As an example, around 10% of our calls are for Active Directory password reset and unlock. That’s over 45,000 calls a year.

Earlier this year, the team developed a self-service tool that allows end-users to perform these tasks from any browser. Using the tool not only benefis my team; it also benefits our end-users because they don’t have to wait on hold just to do a task that they can do themselves.

To help push the adoption of this tool and ultimately eliminate calls to the Service Desk for password reset and unlock, the team added a few tasks:

We started introducing the tool to all new hires during new employee orientation.

Service Desk agents provided each caller with information on how to use the self-service tool. If possible, they would walk them through the steps to do it themselves.

On a weekly basis, the team would pull a list of employees calling in the service desk. These employees would then be sent an email template with information and instructions on how to use the tool.

Repeat callers would also be contacted to understand why they still preferred to call versus using the tool.

All this extra work—compiling the list, sending communication, and managing the interaction—equated to a few hours a week. All the additional work did not seem to have a good return on investment. We found that all the extra effort was pointless and and a waste of resources.

Here’s my challenge to my leaders. Should we completely remove the password reset/unlock function from the Service Desk? Should we stop offering this service and direct our end-users to the self-service tool?

The commitment bias

In the past 20+ years, the Service Desk in our organization has proudly served employees around the world at the highest level. We strive to increase our first-call resolution (FCR) by taking on more functions from higher-tiered support groups. Instead of walking them through creating their own tickets when they call, we prefer doing it for them to save them time and be more “white-glove” in our level of support.

Our bias to this level of commitment completely contradicted what we must do to improve the adoption of self-service tools. We needed to overcome this bias by focusing on the “greater good” and how this move will ultimately benefit our end-users in the long run.

Besides, the password tool is just the first step. We will be developing more tools and automation that we intend to stop supporting on the phones.

A significant number of the employees we support have been with the organization for at least 15 years. They are used to the full-service approach. Many of them would understand the move and appreciate how it will drastically reduce call wait-times for those who need more complex support. But there will be those who will look at this as a negative; expect to get complaints to you directly or through your senior leadership.

Be logical, analytical

To overcome commitment bias, complaints, and other barriers, it’s important to get the facts straight and be methodical in reporting those facts. One of the books I require my leadership team to read is The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling. I’d like to focus on Disciplines 3 and 4—”Keeping a Compelling Scoreboard” and “Creating a Cadence of Accountability.”

Keeping a compelling scoreboard ensures that “everyone knows the score at all times, so that they can tell whether or not they are winning.” This is important to show the efficacy of the move you made. It also helps to get more buy-in for the doubters and inspires continuous improvement on similar efforts. For our efforts, we created a dynamic dashboard on our IT service management (ITSM) system that actively shows us daily, weekly, monthly, and year-to-date progress of this effort. It’s quite astounding how logic and analytics can motivate team members. In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Frederick Herzberg entitled, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?”, the author talks about the connection between results and engagement: “People are most satisfied with their jobs (and therefore most motivated) when those jobs give them the opportunity to experience achievement.”

Creating a cadence of accountability calls for a “frequently recurring cycle of accounting for past performance and planning to move the score forward.” Pulling the numbers and creating the scoreboard are not enough. You should have active conversations with your team surrounding the results. This will help continuous improvement, as well. In my team, we hold a bi-weekly touch-base to discuss automation efforts like the password reset tool.

In conclusion

Let’s challenge ourselves and our teams to solve problems by removing. There’s always value in pruning unnecessary processes from our workflows. Outside of the obvious efficiencies and optimization of resources when we remove processes, simplifying our workflows allows us to see the bigger picture better. Once we’ve unloaded as much “process noise” as possible, then we can easily see areas that need to be replaced, upgraded, or integrated with other technologies. As technology evolves as fast as it does in today’s world, we need to keep our processes nimble enough to have the ability to shift directions relatively quickly.

That’s the same reason we’re always taught to “travel light.” If you travel light, you’re able to be flexible to adjust your plans to get to your destination faster and avoid delays.

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