The news seems to be filled with the issues of potholes and the cost of filling them or worse – doing nothing. As I read the various stories, rants and views, it occurs to me that we often make the same errors in our businesses. Let me try to show you what I mean.

Filling potholes has always struck me as a rather short sighted measure, or as Granny used to say “penny wise, pound foolish“. A filled pothole will break up again, so continuously filling it simply creates continuous costs. Resurfacing a road or a section of road gives it a much longer life.

The other problem is that potholes lead to large hidden costs. Hidden to the repairer, but not hidden to the users of the roads. Tyre wear increases not to mention the damage done to wheels, suspension, undercarriages, etc. These seem not to be of interest to the repairer, but how do you feel about it when your alloys are bent?

In our businesses we to often do the same thing. We fix a small problem, but we neglect to look at the cause of the problem and eliminate it. Let me give you an example.

Years ago I used to have a car rental company and we had a franchise of a major international brand. When a customer complained to the major brand, they would get a £25 voucher and a letter written by a team of marketing people which made you cry and regret ever complaining to these lovely people. Then the matter was closed.

As a result the complaints kept coming in and there were whole departments involved in producing vouchers, accounting for them, producing letters and probably keeping lots of statistics.

We had a different approach. We looked at the reasons for the complaints, talked to the customer, and fixed the problem so it did not occur again. As a result we never had a department, the accounting problems, the reports and the hassle, and, best of all, not many complaints.

Potholes are no different to complaints. They are a symptom of a problem – the problem is the road is bad. Look at Switzerland – their temperatures go through bigger ranges than ours, yet their roads are in much better condition. The Swiss are clever at these things anyway. When asked about leaves on their rails, the boss of the Swiss railways said they simply cut back the trees and bushes every year, so they did not fall on the rails. Simple or what?

In business as with potholes – look at the cause of the problem and manage it away rather than managing the symptoms. Good luck!

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