Business improvement: Taking inspiration from percussion


Let me start by reassuring you that this is not about a new ‘music-based cult’ that aims to solve all business challenges. I’ll leave others to invent that particular approach and make their undoubted fortune through niche cable TV channels and business books. So, allow me to explain my thinking behind the title …

For thirty-eight years I have played the drums in a non-professional capacity – my wife would say “far too loudly and frequently on occasions”. My professional career spans twenty years in business improvement, quality management & organisational change. It was only in the past week however, that I recognised some key parallels between playing the drums and delivering effective business improvement.

When you listen to an inspirational drum track or observe a great drummer,  there are a few things that you will notice time and time again:

  • Tools: The use of a smaller kit rather than a vast array of every possible drum, cymbal, pedal and percussion instrument that is available.
  • Application:  A real understanding by the drummer or percussionist of what each part of the kit can deliver and how to use it to maximum effect to get the best results.
  • Purpose: The drum track drives the rhythm and pace, but ultimately enhances and compliments the other instruments, instead of dominating the song and shouting ‘look at me’. Never is there a better example of less is more.
  • Flexibility: Making small adaptions to their playing approach in-song, driven by how the other musicians are playing and the audience’s reaction.  Adjusting their technique to continue on when a stick breaks or a drum head splits part-way through.

In short, the most renowned drummers and percussionists achieve this higher-level not because of the equipment they use, but how they understand it, use if effectively and blend and enhance with their surrounding environment.

So that all sounds fine, but what has this got to do with business improvement?  How could this learning from the music world, really influence the business improvement fraternity to provide more effective business results?

  • Tools: Focus on utilising a small set of tools that add the maximum value. I find that 20% of the Six Sigma tools available deliver successful results and outcomes for 80% of the situations I encounter. Improvement tools, methods and models are no more than a ‘means to an end’, so always aim to keep things as simple as possible.
  • Application:  By primarily focusing upon a smaller set of tools, it increases the ability to really understand how to use them. Learning the tools from a book or in a classroom is a world apart from deploying them in the imperfect real world. Even today, many improvement professionals overlook or fail to really understand and utilise effectively, some of the basic improvement tools.
  • Purpose: Business improvement should enhance and compliment the organisations ability to grow revenues and profits, but it should not be undertaken in isolation to the wider organisation. It should successfully align with other parts of the organisation, yet not dominate otherwise, it just becomes seen as the “next management initiative”.
  • Flexibility:  Whatever improvement method, approach or tool-set is being used, it is important to not think of these as fixed rules. Consider them as merely guidelines that provide a useful framework which can change and flex as the environment changes.  Don’t be a slave to the tool or method. Change, invent and adjust as needed after all, isn’t that the essence of improvement?

Don’t get me wrong, there is undoubtedly a time and a place for using broader, high-end or statistical process control tools. There are however, many more occasions when keeping things simple strengthens the ability to achieve the required results and outcomes. In today’s business climate and economic challenges, surely a result delivered through simplicity is “music” to the pressured business leader’s ears?

As a final thought, Russ Ackoff, the organisational theorist and consultant once said …. “improvement is about getting what you want and not about removing what you don’t want”.

JohnCronin John Cronin is Managing Director of Blairgowrie associates Limited.  A management consulting business that helps organisations accelerate growth through: strategy & business activity alignment; customer & market insight; growth driven business improvement.

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2 Responses to Business improvement: Taking inspiration from percussion

  1. TK says:

    This a fantastic analogy and connection, I think that sometime people loss sight of the end game in an attempt to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Complexity has little place in a business that it truly customer focused, if you and you people have trouble understanding process within your business then I will put money on the fact that your customer will never understand it.
    Using the connection with percussion (simplicity of generally one instrument = one sound) was a great way to communicate this thanks John.

    Looking forward to reading more of your work in the future

    • jacronin67 says:

      Thanks for the comment. Great to see that iconsult-uk have a similar view on keeping things simple and primarily making the client look good, rather than themselves. Adding complexity is easy compared to simplifying and really focusing upon what adds true value. More blog updates in the coming weeks ….

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