Technology limitations and pattern entrainment

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Have you ever run into a case where you’ve been promised (or “sold”) a huge gain for implementing a new process but reality never came close to matching the hype? If so you may have run into a form of pattern entrainment in which your own actions were what was holding you back.

In this case I’m going back to another of Eli Goldratt’s business novels, this time “Necessary But Not Sufficient” (written with co-authors Eli Schragenheim and Carol Ptak.) The point here is that often when we are faced with a technology limitation we create a policy or procedure to help us cope with the limitation (constraint). If the technology limitation is removed but we continue to operate with the old policies then we will only see limited benefits of the new technology at best.

The classic example is calculating material requirements in a factory. Originally it was such a complicated task that even the biggest companies could really only afford to do it once a month. When Manufacturing Resource Planning or Material Resource Planning (MRP) software systems became available they could do that calculation in a matter of hours. Some companies bought MRP systems and got huge payoffs, but many companies that spent millions of dollars on MRP software didn’t get the massive payoffs the sales people had promised. Why? Because they only ran the computer system once a month because they’d always run it once a month. It became an entrained pattern that they never even considered breaking. They could have run the software once a week or even once a day and gotten significant value. The “run it once a month” rule was a coping mechanism to deal with the difficulty of doing the calculations. The new software removed that limitation (constraint) but continuing to only run the software once a month gave them no value from the technical limitation being removed. They had traded a technology constraint for a policy constraint. End result–little to no improvement.

Sometimes you can get yourself out of this sort of situation simply by realizing that you’re in it. One thing that can help is to ask yourself a set of questions when you’re considering new technology:

What is the power of the technology?
What limitation does it diminish?
What old rules helped accommodate the limitation?
What are the new rules that should be used now?
In light of the change in rules, what changes are required to the
How do we cause the change (the new win/win business model)?

Pattern entrainment can be difficult to break and the questions may be insufficient, but they can’t hurt!