Why Tiny Problems Are More Dangerous Than Larger Ones

how to reduce clutter at the workplace

For months, I had an inflammation in my elbow. I couldn’t even pick up my laptop or a grocery bag. Exercise stopped. All my movements were restricted.

Interferential Treatment (IFT) provided temporary relief. But when it ended, the pain erupted again.

The physiotherapist brought my attention to a spasm on the right side of my neck. She explained why it caused me pain, and how my stiff upper back and weak lower back forced my arms and shoulders to overcompensate, causing a recurring pain in them.

The physiotherapist gave me certain exercises. Within three days, the pain shifted to my shoulder. I couldn’t sleep that night.

As the exercises turned more advanced, my right knee started paining, followed by my hamstrings and hips. One by one, she added exercises for each body part.

This seemed ridiculous! My body was fine until now. The only pain lay in my elbow. Now almost every part of my body pained.

In truth, however, my body was a mess. As she addressed one pain, another suppressed one surfaced. Each pain appeared trivial by itself but contributed to a larger issue of an unhealthy body.

I stuck to the exercises and returned to the gym as per the physiotherapist’s instructions.

Within two months, my pain disappeared. My posture, strength, and flexibility improved. I didn’t just revert to my original self, I became better.

I still follow the exercises and visit the clinic once a week to get evaluated. It’s hard to imagine that addressing a trivial pain in the elbow triggered such a massive improvement.

Organization = Body

One can draw parallels to the business world.

Most leaders I meet complain about chaotic workplaces. Their daily tasks include wading through knee-deep clutter, fire-fighting, and solving the same problems over and over again.

They might’ve tried sorting things but faced plenty of resistance from people who didn’t want to disturb the status quo. So they gave up.

Another apparent benefit of tiny problems is that sorting them makes leaders feel useful. In a world where prioritize change every day and long-terms goals only exist on paper, why not do something whose results are immediately visible?

Finally, a permanent fix is messy. Solving one issue unearths another suppressed one, then another. Addressing these problems demands our time and effort, and pushes us outside our comfort zone. Plus, how can we ignore the urgent, seemingly important problems, right now?

Eventually, leaders learn to live with the clutter. It frustrates them, but at least it doesn’t surprise them. Things work right now, so why bother fixing them?

But this is when things get messy. A workplace filled with tiny problems causes harm in the following ways.

1. It’s terribly demotivating.

Nobody likes working on something they know will need rework. And clutter often causes rework. Eventually, people stop caring about the quality of work and instead focus only on making money.

Ford Motor Company, for example, forced workers to work on cars had mistakes that had to be undone. And their policy was, “The production line doesn’t stop, no matter what.” (The line kept moving even when a worker suffered a heart attack and fell into the pit.”

Workers vented their frustration through extreme measures. They drank on the job, sabotaged production vehicles, and engaged with prostitutes during lunch breaks.

2. It leads to crises.

I shudder what the compound effect of just a quick fix (IFT) would’ve led to for my body ten years down the line. Maybe I would’ve injured myself so badly that I could never play a sport again.

British Petroleum knows about paying a huge price for quick fixes. Between 2001 and 2007, the oil giant ignored 356 “small” spills. Not because they didn’t care about the environment but because they always prioritized more “urgent” issues.

Then in 2010, a catastrophic explosion pumped 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. BP paid more than $65 billion in cleanup costs, charges, and penalties.

3. It causes disruption.

Companies get so caught in the daily grind that they don’t look outside the window. Has competition caught up or worse, passed them? Are they losing customers? Are they on the verge of turning obsolete?

Leaders develop gut feelings about such things. And they’re often right. But they find no time to validate these feelings with data.

how do companies get disrupted

The worst part of these harmful effects is that we can never see them coming.

How to Reduce Clutter at the Workplace

No human body can remain injury-free. Similarly, no organization can remain problem-free.

But this doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to how things are. Effective leaders keep firing themselves from jobs they do so that they can focus on the bigger picture.

To make this happen, you shouldn’t just clean a mess, but also prevent it from reoccurring. Here are three things that can push you in a helpful direction.

1. Hire right.

You cannot solve problems and de-clutter the workplace alone. Nor can you succeed if you surround yourself with people who sulk when they get pulled up for their good work and take it out at the water-cooler. You need people who take initiative and work as part of a team to address challenges head-on.

This is why you must hire people for their mindset, not experience or education.

During the interview, give them a week-long project to work. Ask questions when they show you the output. Observe how they respond. Do they push back when you share feedback or are they keen to learn? Do they ask questions or try to impose their perspectives on you?

Hiring the right people is tedious and time-consuming. But only clear and open minds can help you streamline processes.

2. Work with less.

It’s tempting to throw more a problem… more money, time, people, stock. But all this only complicates the problem. The more complex it becomes, the further problems it creates.

Instead, go the other way. Cut down on the number of people working on the problem. Let them figure out the root cause and return with permanent fixes rather than band-aids.

Your problem won’t be half as bad as you fear. In fact, it’ll get better.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” — Albert Einstein

3. Refine processes.

It’s easy to put your head down and do something because it’s always done like that. It’s tough to raise your head and check whether it achieves expected goals. As a leader, your role is to do what’s tough.

Conduct weekly reviews, ask questions, listen to the opinions of people closest to situations, make action plans, and measure whether they get done.

“If you measure something, you’re telling people that it matters.” — Dov Seidman.

As a leader, your job is not to do things better than your people. It’s to empower them to do things better. When they do, you can fire yourself from your current role and move on to bigger things.

Summing Up

An organization, like the human body, has many moving parts. The more cluttered it gets, the more problems it causes.

Such clutter is often invisible or so deeply ridden in the culture that it gets taken for granted.

Work to simplify the culture of your workplace so that people can contribute in more meaningful ways to your company’s goals. This also will make you contribute in more meaningful ways to your company’s goals.

No one wants to suck at work. If they’re put in a position to succeed, they will. As a leader, your role is to put them there.

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