Is Your Organization Suffering From Inertia?

Is Your Organization Suffering From Inertia?


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Sometimes, one of the biggest factors holding your business back is so small you can hardly see it. It’s easy to miss, because it doesn’t take up any space; it doesn’t move; and its existence doesn’t change a thing. I’m talking about inertia. The last time some people in business heard the word ‘inertia’ was back in physics class many years ago. Human nature is to resist change, which, when applied to a business, creates ‘organizational inertia.’ What I mean by organizational inertia, is that some of your key personnel may be resistant to any changes, even if it is an improvement over what they are doing now. Organizational inertia is the tendency of a mature organization to continue on its current trajectory. Consider this… any improvement is a change.

Has your business become inert? The definition of inert is “unable to move or act; the tendency to do nothing.” A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A business at rest tends to die. The enemy of most companies is “the way it’s always been done.” Often, the status quo is preserved because it appears easier at the time, or because long-standing prevailing habits, ideas and hierarchies will not be called into question, but accepted as inescapable. So, even if the company is ‘in a rut,’ people will still resist change; because of inertia, and also because ‘ruts long traveled become comfortable.’ We’ve all heard the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The trouble with this approach is that we can end up staying with banks that annoy us, suppliers who don’t service us well, staff who aren’t suitable and shop floor processes that are barely adequate. We stick with them because while they might be a small thorn in our side, they don’t frustrate us enough for us to do anything about it. So, we complain about the economy, the government, staffing issues, our competitors, or a whole host of reasons we use as excuses about why our business isn’t progressing to the next level. But, it can actually be more effective to look at where your business may be suffering from inertia.

Take Kodak, for example; a company that couldn’t escape its own inertia, despite being in a

ompetitors to the mainstream world market. Polaroid Corporation is another example. Their management believed that the company could not make money on hardware, but only on ‘snap shot’ consumables. This line of thinking led them to neglect the growth in digital imaging technologies, and the corporation failed to adapt effectively to the market changes.

I’ve talked to enough businesses over the years, and listened to enough boardroom discussions among business leaders and stakeholders, to come to the conclusion that another serious detriment to making a decision that will improve the overall business, is “people,” and “relationships.” The actual long-term relationships that have been formed within a business environment, cause some businesses to hold off on doing something that everyone in authority knows is best for the future of the business. Let me give you some examples:

  • “Elmo’s been here forever, and he has his methods that work well for him.”
  • “People like them have made this company what it is today.”
  • “We can’t do that! XYZ has been our customer for almost 20 years and they would never go for that.”

Maybe your people have been taught the corporate commandment “Thou shalt not question.” Anytime someone with a fresh new perspective has questioned the established methods, he/she is shut down. “That’s not the way we do things here.” “You haven’t been here long enough to know.”

This type of attitude is what’s keeping your organization from moving forward. Many businesses don’t want to admit it, but many of these symptoms really do exist within the ranks of your staff. Really listen to everyone at some of your meetings and you’ll hear them. Once you do, you’ll know; your business is not able to respond properly to a rapidly shifting marketplace. Keep going this way and you’re doomed. Once you get a handle on this, and see your organization in a whole new light, you’ll know whether what’s holding you back is a small rut or a death trap.

Another term is “cognitive inertia,” which refers to the tendency for beliefs to endure once they are formed. In particular, cognitive inertia describes the human inclination to rely on familiar assumptions and exhibit reluctance and/or ability to revise those assumptions, even when the evidence supporting them no longer exists or when other evidence would question their accuracy. It’s a psychological barrier to organizational change, causing managers to fail to update and revise their understanding of a situation, even when that situation changes.

I saw a picture of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain which starts on July 7th every year. The title of the picture was “Tradition.” Just because you’ve always done something that way still doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid. Don’t let your business be so wrapped up in tradition that it chokes the life out of a good business. Making decisions based solely on “we’ve always done it that way” is not a wise move. Circumstances change, equipment changes, customer’s needs change, processing requirements constantly change, new processing steps in the heat treating workflow are added all the time. So, changes are taking place out of the necessity to remain viable, and to compete with other like businesses that are also adopting change to keep that competitive edge.

We’re in the middle of a technological innovation revolution, where new technology is ‘driving’ everything. Every company relies on new technology to remain competitive within their vertical markets. In most cases, our perception of the work involved to make a change is far greater than what’s really involved. It seems overwhelming, but when you break down what needs to be done, it becomes more manageable. Take a deep breath; and Press Go. There will be some business disruption but, chances are that it will be well worth it to get out of your inertia rut and take your heat treating business to the next level.

There may be “Gold in the mine.” Gold in the mine is a metaphor for the potential savings in quality improvement efforts. In the context of reducing poor quality costs; digging in the right place can produce great savings.