When I was in high school, I went to a church camp in the summer where the students ran a day camp for underprivileged youth during the day and had their own camp activities at night. When I was in college, I went again as a paid intern from my church. So I had the opportunity to see the way the camp ran as a participant and leader.
Months before going, the camp gave us a training manual to prepare our students. It was a massive binder of information and activities to learn and practice. We had trouble completing the manual before it was time to go to the camp.
At camp, there was a meeting between those who ran the camp and all the church leaders and interns to discuss the preparation. The camp leadership went through a docket of questions asking how we prepared and what had helped. Everyone, it seemed, had difficulty completing the training manual before arriving. When a concern was raised, the camp representatives would respond, “that’s a good idea. We’ll add that to the manual.”
Finally, the minister from my church jumped in and said, “I hear you saying ‘we’ll add that to the manual.’ What we’re telling you is that the manual is too large. You need to take things out of the manual.”
Every profession, every job seems to suffer the same experience. How quickly does an email turn into a memo? A memo into a meeting? A meeting into a process document? A process document into a manual?
We don’t fix broken or bad systems by adding layers to them. Look at the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — its chief sin is that it has added too much to the manual. Not content with imposing a bad system on top of a broken one, the ACA has added layers and layers of complication and compliance regulation to a troubled industry.
We fix broken systems by tearing them apart, by opening them up, reducing what they do, minimizing the potential points of failure, and leaving them open and simple.
Stop adding things to the manual in your own work. Ask instead, “what can we take out?”