Reading the paper over the weekend, I couldn't help but notice all the "big problems" we face politically, socially and economically. To name just one, Medicare/Social Security, a writer noted that a huge change in the way we fund these programs has to occur. Either we tax the people who are currently working to continue to fund the existing commitments, or we dramatically reduce the payments to Medicare/Social Security receipients very soon.
What strikes me about this problem, and so many like it, is how long we've known this was a problem and how little we've done to fix it. When Social Security started, there were seven workers to fund one retiree, and the lifespan was such that few people lived very long in retirement. Today, there are barely 2.5 workers per retiree, and people are living 20+ years after retiring. Of course much of this was predicted in the early 1970s, but very little action was taken. Why? The article I was reading went on to note that institutions and corporations rarely change or address problems such as this until they are faced with a true crisis. In other words, due to a lack of a spine, some political gumption and the willingness to solve a problem now rather than in the future, we'll all take it in the shorts in the future because we haven't solved this problem.
To get off the political soapbox and relate this to business life shouldn't be too difficult. We often see and ignore small problems all the time, and allow them to fester into larger problems in our businesses. It seems to me we should attack the small problems while they are small so we aren't faced with larger problems later. Why don't we address the problems earlier?
1) Hopefully, someone else will take up that responsibility
2) If we ignore it, maybe it will go away on its own
3) That problem isn't important right now, we'll deal with it later
4) It's not really a problem, it just looks like it is from your vantage point
The first rationale is simply a failure of doing what's best for the business. If you recognize a problem, it makes sense to acknowledge it and try to find out what's being done to fix it. Even if the problem isn't in "your area", it will eventually impact you in some way. Do you think the sales teams at the US automotive manufacturers didn't know that the Japanese automobiles where made to higher quality standards? They lost customers in droves in the 80s to Toyota and Honda based on better quality. Did they tell anyone back in the manufacturing sites that quality was a huge problem?
The second rationale is my favorite. I use it all the time. If I ignore a problem long enough, hopefully it will resolve itself with no involvement from me. This almost never works, but I cling to it like a life preserver. This is the same rationale that Congress uses to ignore Social Security. There's really no good defense of this rationale but its one we all use.
The third rationale - it's not important now - is another one I use quite frequently. We can solve that one when it becomes a bigger issue. It's not as important right now as something else. This is the hope that a small problem remains a small problem, and does not grow. Unfortunately in my experience, this almost never happens. Small problems rarely fade away or remain "small". Problems, like children and waistlines, only seem to grow.
The final rationale is a traditional economic dodge - like the one being used for our trade deficit. We have the largest trade deficit we've ever run - importing way more than we are exporting. But looked at in terms of our GDP, it is still a "small" number. It all depends on your vantage point. The budget deficit is the largest it's ever been, but is "small" in terms of GDP. Well, it may be "small" in terms of GDP but we are still going to have to find the money to pay it back!
It seems to me that we'd be much better off, politically and in our business lives, to attack problems and challenges while they are small rather than waiting and hoping for a magical resolution. Instead we wait until the problems are large and then are forced to throw immense resources to fix problems we knew about and saw coming for quite some time. The year 2000 issue in corporate IT demonstrates a great example. From 1995 to 1999 I'd be willing to bet that almost half of all corporate IT spending was directed to a problem most firms had seen coming for 15 or 20 years.
Fix the small problems before they become big problems.