Have to and cannot, the most misused phrases in business?

Have to and cannot the most misused phrases in businessSimplification is often useful in life, but taking a very straightforward approach can also prevent us from seeing and discussing many of the options that are available. In practice, this often boils down to the ease with which we succumb to using the words “have to” and “cannot” in our daily lives.

I do not claim that there are never situations where people have to do something or cannot do something. However, especially in the domain of business operations, these situations are nowhere near as prevalent as the common use of these terms implies.

We have to lay off people

This is one of the most common misuses of the words “have to.” It is most often used merely as a psychological tool to make everyone feel better about the decision.

I once attended a training session led by a psychologist on how to lay off people. The company I worked for at the time was struggling, and all the people in managerial positions attended this particular training in preparation for the layoffs. The psychologist kept repeating how “you have to convince yourself that these layoffs are something you simply have to do.”

I did not find this statement to be completely honest. The company was in no danger of bankruptcy and the overall market demand was sufficient that no permanent reductions seemed necessary. Thus, I replied that we don’t really “have to” lay off anyone, it is just a choice that has been decided upon, because many people think it is the most convenient way forward. This point was not understood by the trainer at all, and she kept insisting that this was indeed something the company had to do. She had held these trainings for more than a decade by the way, for hundreds of companies. So no wonder that layoffs seem a natural part of life, something companies often “have to” do.

In many cases, however, layoffs actually hurt the company, as vital expertise is removed and few companies are so aware of what everyone actually does that they can accurately estimate the effects that layoffs have on their overall performance – layoffs can actually hurt productivity more than they save on the payroll.

How would you fix a struggling company? By working hard, or by not working at all (layoffs)?

Now, contrast this with how Toyota has kept its full-time staff on board even when there has been no work for 14 weeks – not wanting to dismantle the machine they knew they would need again in the future. What did they do during this time? Trained the people to be even better in the future.

We cannot improve this

While this misuse occurs on its own as well, it is also sometimes caused by the first mistake, laying off people who are actually needed.

Let’s consider a project-based environment where shipments of hundreds of items, dozens of them unique and each combination unique, are shipped out on weekly basis. Unfortunately, there are problems in ensuring that each delivery is complete and packed in such a way that each machine can be easily assembled on-site. Sure, this is no production line – you cannot determine a set flow for a limited number of items and make sure each arrives at the right place at a specific time according to the takt time of your line or pulled as needed (remember, there are plenty of unique items there in each delivery).

According to the factory manager, the situation cannot be improved. Hmm.. Wait? Is that really so? Is there anything that actually prevents the logistics team, even in this challenging situation, from packing everything in a logical order and ensuring that each shipped package is complete? After all, everything has been designed in advance and all the documents and parts are available. It is surely possible to imagine a world where a number of people working together prepare everything that is being shipped out in a manner that the package is complete and easily unpacked.

There can be plenty of challenges, for sure: Not enough people in the logistics team. Documents are not in a readily usable format. Not enough space on the shop floor for adequate packing. However, challenges such as these do not mean that the issue is unsolvable. “We cannot improve this” is often a convenient shorthand for “That’s difficult, I don’t want to try.”

The above example is from real life by the way. It was only improved after six years of discussion during which any improvement potential was categorically denied. The situation had got really bad after one person was let go, who had made it his task to make sure everything is on board when the truck leaves the factory. The company did not understand what everyone actually did, so they did not correctly predict the effect of someone missing.

If you want to discover what is possible, you have to reach for the moon

The phrases “have to” and “cannot” are central to why I like Lean thinking so much. Lean is about reaching the seemingly impossible by taking small steps to the right direction all the time, never settling and never becoming too satisfied with what you have already accomplished.

However, reaching for the moon is not exclusive to Lean. It is enough that you do not accept statements that use the words “have to” and “cannot” at face value, but dig deeper and experiment to find out what the real limits are, if there even are any.


Photo: by BK / Masa Sakano @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.