Effectively thinking outside the box requires a deep knowledge of the key elements of a system along with the raw courage to eliminate the superfluous but traditional sacred cows.

An illustrative story from the annuals of business: Once upon a time Hertz had a problem. Hertz’s best and most profitable customers, the dependable, twice-a-month business travelers on expense accounts who took the big cars with the nice mark-ups were unhappy. Why? Because they were in a hurry, they valued their time, and they hated waiting in line. And when a business traveler arrived at the same time as a 747 full of vacationers, there was a long and unpleasant wait at the rental car counter.

So Hertz formed a task force to study the problem. And study the problem, they did. And came up with all sorts of conventional “solutions,” they did:

– Let’s spend more time training our clerks so they are faster and more efficient

– Let’s buy faster printers

– Let’s redesign the forms so they are easier to fill out

– Let’s hire more part-timers for peak-period staffing

– Let’s buy faster computers

– Let’s revamp our software

– Let’s give our clerks training on dealing with unhappy people

– Let’s build longer counters

Then finally at the end of a long day of cost-benefit analysis and serious task force thinking, a small voice was heard from the back of the room:

“Uh, Boss?”

“Yeah, Smith, what is it?”

“I’ve got an idea, sir. Why don’t we just give them the keys?”

“Huh? What are you talking about? What do you mean just give them the keys? These are $50,000 automobiles we are talking about.”

“Yes, sir, they are. But these are our best customers, right? Good credit, all of them. The best credit really. We have their credit card numbers on file, we have their drivers license numbers in our files, too. Heck, we even know where they live.”

The light was beginning to dawn in the boss’s eyes.

“By golly, I think you have something there, Jones. We could have a big board posted with their names and the stall their car is in, and we could print out their contracts in advance and put them on the seat. We could do all this during slow periods.”

“It’s Smith, sir. We already have someone manning the gatehouse at the exit to the parking lot. That person could check the drivers license photo against the driver and the contract, and have the driver sign out on a clipboard.”

Thus was born the Hertz #1 Club program. A wonderful example of cutting to the quick. Brilliant in its simplicity and much beloved by frequent travelers worldwide for its ease and efficiency. However, it is important to note that the key points of the prior system were retained: credit and identity checks remained in place, they were simply reduced to the essential minimums.

Systems tend to get clogged over time. Policies and procedures are put in place to deal with specific problems and then tend to remain long after the original need is gone. I think of business systems as gardens that need regular tending and periodic weeding to insure that the policies and procedures in place are still really, really necessary. That they are the best, most effective and efficient way to achieve desired results. The ultimate goal is customer satisfaction and principled profit.

Personally, I think one of life’s greatest joys is finding ways to make a system, a process, work better, faster, more simply and smoothly. What a wonderful way to to ease the lives of those around us, to make their world a better place.

Closing quotes:

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hofmann, artist; 1880-1996

“A man must be able to cut a knot, for everything cannot be untied; he must know how to disengage what is essential from the detail in which it is enwrapped, for everything cannot be equally considered; in a word, he must be able to simplify his duties, his business and his life.” — Henri Frederic Amiel, Swiss critic; 1821-1881

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; 1841-1935

This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive, originally posted October 3, 2008.