It’s Not Either Or

Earlier in my career I was a partner at The Boston Consulting Group, an international management consultancy. We would get hired by corporations to solve business problems, like how to reduce the cost of telephone cable connectors, or to produce orange juice more efficiently.

Often, in trying to solve a problem, it would seem like the only solution was an “either-or.” Lower cost telephone cable connectors would have a higher failure rate. Greater orange juice efficiency would compromise the taste.

But my boss, a master problem solver, had a phrase: “Break the compromise.” He would drive us to find the solution that wasn’t either-or.

Our telephone cable connector client was turning out new product in nine weeks, and was convinced it couldn’t be done faster. Then we found a Japanese company that was turning out new product in two-and-a-half weeks. We were amazed.

Working with our client, we redesigned their process to remove extra steps and redundancies that no one had noticed. As a result, our client was able to develop new product in three weeks, dramatically cutting the cost while maintaining low failure rates.

At our orange juice client, we found that waste was occurring when bad oranges were culled from the manufacturing line. But orange growers were paid by the pound as their trucks rolled over the scales coming into the plant. Only a sample was taken to assure the overall fruit quality was good, and invariably some of the oranges in those trucks were bad.

By changing the scheme and tracking the fruit culled during manufacturing back to each truck, the manufacturer could pay the grower for good oranges only. This caused the growers to become more selective with what they put on their trucks. As a result, the manufacturing throughput increased, reducing unit cost while maintaining orange juice quality.

In retrospect, these solutions sound simple. But it required jettisoning our expectations and seeking a solution where at first none seemed possible.

These days, whenever I face an either-or, I look for a solution that breaks the compromise.