Sometimes “Improvement” Makes Things Worse

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The next time you go to the grocery store, stop for a minute in the produce section. Pick up a tomato and hold it in your hand. What you have there, my friend, is an example of how “improvement” can make things worse.

When you get home from the store, take out your computer or tablet and search for “heirloom tomato.” You can also search for specific varieties, like German Johnson or Cherokee Red. What you’ll find are pictures of a fruit that don’t look like what you find in the supermarket.  They don’t taste like what you find in the supermarket, either.

If you’re accustomed to seeing the round red perfection of supermarket tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes may look funny.

You might think they look like the result of a failed radiation experiment. But, unless you buy your tomatoes for decoration only, those heirloom tomatoes are a lot better at what we buy tomatoes for. They’re nutritious and they taste good.

The reason that heirloom tomatoes taste good, among other things, is because they have more sugar. They also tend to be juicier. They’re perfect for a tomato sandwich. Unless neatness is more important than flavor for you.

The tomato you buy at your supermarket may not be perfect for a tomato sandwich. But it is perfect for a lot of other things. When it’s ripe, it’s uniformly red. Heirloom tomatoes tend to be darker and have some green around the stem. Grocery store tomatoes have a longer shelf life. They’re more resistant to some diseases. They can handle the refrigeration and shipping stresses.

The tomato industry improved the disease tolerance, shipping tolerance, shelf life, and uniform color of tomatoes. The only thing they didn’t improve was the flavor.

The result is a uniformly red, perfectly round tomato that tastes like sawdust. There’s a lesson there.

If you’re working to improve your product or service, make sure your changes make a positive difference to your customer or client. It’s easy to fool yourself and think that something that’s better for you is automatically better for your customer. Not so. Remember the tomato.

If you’re a leader, one of your challenges is to make things better. Make sure that you’re making things better for your teammates and not just better for you. Remember the tomato.

Bottom Line

Stop and think before you try to make something better. Are you making it better for the customer or your teammates? Or are you just making things better for you? Remember the tomato.

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What People Are Saying

Steve Errey   |   20 Sep 2019   |   Reply

It’s easy to create something homogenised and generic as we seek to improve it and seek to give people “what they want”. Sometimes leadership asks that we don’t seek to fit in, or do what’s expected or even create something that’s safe.

It takes confidence to be comfortable in your difference.

(Heirloom tomatoes all the way!)

Wally Bock   |   20 Sep 2019   |   Reply

Thanks, Steve. I think there’s also a progression to this kind of change most of the time. Leaders start to make a small change because of what either the team or the customer wants. Then they make another change. Then another. And another. But no one checks to see if what made the original desirable is still there. The grocery store will have tomatoes all winter, but I’ll wait for the first heirlooms next spring for my next tomato sandwich.

Michal   |   22 Sep 2019   |   Reply

My “favorite” experience: Leader who focused on employee happiness and relationships. It lead to strong conflict avoidance. It caused lower standards. It caused lower quality, efficiency and productivity. It caused lower employee happiness and worse relationships.

My approach is to see the situation in a system (which its components, interactions and cause-effect relationships) and define objectives (especially competing objectives and possible troubles) prior problem solving / decision making. Person is a system. Organization is a system. Cause-effect relationships are not not of first-order consequences, but of second-order, third-order and higher-order consequences… And, because I am aware that my “improvement” comment can make things worse, be aware of analysis paralysis :)

Wally Bock   |   23 Sep 2019   |   Reply

Thanks, Michal. Well said.