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KonMari and your business

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Aw, cripes. Another one?

I’m talking about the KonMari method, how annoying fads like this are, and the likelihood we’ll have to deal with someone who thinks it’s clever to put us on the defensive by pointing out our unenlightened failure to apply it to our day-to-day business decisions.

In case you’ve been spared from awareness of this silly bit o’ fluff, it’s a methodology, invented by one Marie Kondo, for simplifying your life. The way it works: (1) Gather together all of one’s belongings, one category at a time; (2) keep only those things that “spark joy”; and (3) choose a place for everything from then on.

I tried it. I kept only those furnishings that sparked joy. My garbage cans didn’t make the cut. Out they went, and by the way, have you ever tried to throw a garbage can in the garbage? It’s a tricky proposition.

I conducted this trial as a thought experiment — my garbage cans are still here — because seriously, people fall for nonsense like this?

Understand, I’m severely jealous. Armed with such a patently preposterous proposition and adroit self-promotion, Marie Kondo, at the ripe old age of callow, has millions of devotees while I, saddled with a self-imposed requirement of subjecting ideas to at least 15 seconds of close scrutiny before sharing them with you, enjoy a more limited level of celebrity.

But never mind my virology failures. This is a column about preparedness, as in how will you respond when someone proposes that as a manager you should be applying the KonMari method to your areas of responsibility?

The question might be directly KonMari. More likely, it will be KonMcKinsey in phrasing instead (“prune underperforming assets”).

And by the way, in both locutions the underlying concept isn’t entirely stupid. If the point is to take a fresh look at all your stuff and recognize what you have in your closets, shelves, and dressers that’s only there because keeping it is easier than throwing it out, then yes, throw it out.

Based on our experience moving from a suburban townhouse to a downtown condo with substantially less storage, I can tell you many of our possessions were items we had no particular need for, and that’s after we jettisoned several hundred books we’d already read and would never read again.

In your business responsibilities, you also have “assets” where taking a fresh look isn’t unreasonable. The problem is the ROI (return on investment) mentality that’s usually associated with such evaluations.

By “ROI mentality” I mean the requirement, drilled into the heads of most managers like some form of business trepanning, that anything for which we can’t prove a direct financial return provides only “intangible benefits.”

This is such a nice turn of phrase, don’t you think? Technically, it means the benefits are non-financial in nature. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s wording carefully constructed to put managers advocating for these things on the defensive. We aren’t differentiating between financial and non-financial benefits. We can see, touch, and feel things that are tangible. Intangible is just one short step from imaginary.

But … isn’t insisting that everything produces a profit a good idea?

In a word, no. In several words, organizations aren’t portfolios of uncoupled assets. They’re assemblages of interconnected functions … services if you’re in an SOA frame of mind … that turn raw materials, also known as inputs, into the organization’s work products, also known as outputs.

Management’s job is to make sure each asset — each service, sub-service, sub-sub-service, and microservice — works as it’s supposed to in order to keep the joint running. Asking whether each asset provides proper value and ROI just misses the point entirely.

So if someone tries to drag you through a KonMari or KonMcKinsey exercise, be ready to explain, as patiently as you can, that your organization is a mechanism constructed of interconnected components, not a bag of assets.

And while it’s entirely valid to ask if each component is performing as it should, it’s entirely invalid to ask if it’s contributing enough value to be worth keeping.

It is, if you like, like asking how my garbage cans contribute to my income.

On hearing the question, it will be so, so tempting to point out that the asker isn’t sparking joy in my life.

Comments (5)

  • Bob,

    There you go applying logic again. They bring me joy (not to mention some useful ideas and insights), so I do believe I’ll keep reading your columns.

    My email inbox, on the other hand, may have a bit in common with your garbage cans. But alas, I shall not get rid of it.

  • AT&T applies the same profit-center criteria to Bell Labs, who invented the transistor and launched TelStar. Now they became Lucent with all the attendant luster.

    • Keep in mind that AT&T isn’t the same company that ran Bell Labs. It was acquired by SBC, which then acquired Cingular. AT&T persisted mostly as a brand. The former Cingular is where most of what’s now AT&T came from.

  • You’re slightly miscasting the intent of Marie Kondo (it’s about tidying up the clutter, not evaluating everything you own, so it’s kind of like 5S in the Toyota Production System), your warning about a major misapplication in business circles is right on target. Because, well…fads.

    As for ROI as a fad, it’s also a complete misapplication of the concept. ROI was originally an accounting concept based on an after-the-fact evaluation of results. The faddists turned it into a pseudo-technical term for what was really an estimate, a projection, a wish, a fantasy, or an outright lie. Just because it sounds technical, though, ROI has been used to bludgeon every business proposal that’s focused on culture, principle, ethics, or anything else that isn’t quantifiable as “bottom line” (because it’s just about the Benjamins).

    This misapplication (among other head-slappers) has just about wrecked my wife’s company, as the “sales” side has figured out how to justify just about any foolish move to the “finance” side by “proving” a sufficient ROI on any project, hiding the flaws and obvious shortcomings in a numerical spreadsheet of made-up numbers.

  • I’m reading a book about newer findings in math. He says the math departments resisted computers and said they are the second cheapest department on campus to run, needing only pencil, paper and wastebaskets. Ampparently, philosophy dept is cheaper because they don’t need the wastebaskets.

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