Not every improvement has to be a breakthrough

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 04-30-13

So many teams that I coach, assess, observe, and otherwise engage in are looking for breakthrough results. That makes sense, right? Desperate times call for desperate measures (and we seem to keep being reminded that these are desperate times). And if I’m going to work on something, I might as well make it something really worthwhile, something big. And so we look for innovative, unique, breakthrough improvements and overlook seemingly mundane, simple ones.

Here’s how simple it can be.

A few weeks ago, I was in Derby , England, at Pride Park, home of the Derby County Rams. While in a conference room overlooking the football pitch (or soccer field, for Americans), I watched one of the groundskeepers painstakingly but quickly laying out orange cones very precisely on both ends. Once I saw what he was doing, it was so simple yet effective.


How do I cover a large, open field with fertilizer without missing spots or overspreading, in either case providing a far-from-perfect product? The evenly spaced cones gave him a simple target to aim for, allowing for the perfect distribution of fertilizer and an error-free result. The investment? Putting out and picking up cones each time.

Here’s why we overlook such simple solutions. We want to maximize ROI, or Return On Investment. So we start by sorting out our problems for the Return. Once we determine the return, we then see if it meets the Investment threshold. So we aren’t sorting ideas based on ROI. Sometimes the best way to maximize Return on Investment is not to look for the high returns but to look for the low investments. Keep it Simple…well, you know the rest.

Reflection: what do you do in your organization to encourage the seemingly small investments?


  • Hi Jamie

    I agree, in fact there are many things we can improve that neither cost anything nor create a return, though they will make things better for someone. If we truly respect people and make their lives better at work, then they will be motivated to help make other things better that will help generate revenue.

    I know of a bank that has gone the exact opposite direction most of its competition have been going, they are increasing the level of service they provide. What they found was that by doing some things that actually cost them money, they built a stronger relationship with their customers, which in the long run meant they won extra business from them. Sometimes we look to closely at pure accounting numbers, instead of looking for the cause and effect relationships that actually drive your business. Life has a lot of grey areas that accounting information just doesn’t show. May 2, 2013 at 3:24 pm
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