If it ain’t broken, fix it

I know that some of you probably read this title and thought it is a typo. Some of you might have added the negation, “Do not fix it”. I assure you, there is no mistake. I am proposing to eliminate the negation.

Imagine you felt a little dizzy. You start to run out of breath. You identify these early symptoms as potentially dangerous and you visit a doctor. The doctor can’t examine you and then say, “Well, you are breathing. Let’s not fix it.”

Bert Lance is credited with popularizing the Southern saying “If it ain’t broken, do not fix it” in 1977. His goal was to save government money. However, I believe that the popularity of this thinking is costing us money. I first heard this expression 20 years ago when I immigrated to the United States. I lived by that rule and drove ‘Aziza’, My first Honda CR-V (yes, I name my cars), to an early junkyard grave. I did not change the oil. I did not even change the battery. I learned to live with the ‘check engine’ light. As an organizational development expert, I now believe that this saying is reactionary thinking. It is costing us money, and it is time we change it.

Five years ago, I conducted a program evaluation as an independent consultant for an institution. The institution met its expectations, but I saw early warning signs. Consequently, I wrote recommendations at the end of the evaluation. This week, I was asked to conduct another program evaluation for the same institution. This time, the program did not meet its goal. It is broken, but they are willing to fix it. Apparently the recommendations from five years ago were dismissed. The lesson learned here is institutions can’t afford to ignore early warning signs.

For example, we know that repeated absence is corrolated with students achieving lower grades, and in some cases dropping out. We know from research that students need to be engaged. We all care about graduation and we have to encourage timely counseling when we see the early warning signs. Repeated absence is the ‘check engine’ light that we can’t afford to ignore.

There are several ways to rethink that Southern saying. We have to begin thinking, ‘if it ain’t broken, analyze it or optimize it’. As a consultant, I find the mid-program reviews to be crucial. It is not enough for us to meet our goals. The success of the program should not be defined as ‘met expectations’. We have to ask how can we exceed our goals by improving what ain’t broken.