History can be a great calibrator. Sometimes we can’t see the complexity around us simply because it is all too familiar, too comfortable, and just plain generally accepted. But a look back in time, before all of the patches were put in place instead of performing good root cause analyses and fixing the underlying issues, can sometimes help us see the opportunity in the complexity.
As mid April roles around again, those of us in the U.S. are being forced to look at stacks of tax forms and contemplate the transfer of hard-earned savings to the government. Obviously to at least some extent this creates some good. Highways are built, R&D is supported, and the less fortunate are helped. Of course billions are also wasted on numerous frivolous projects, with even shrimp farming somehow being associated with a recent defense funding bill to help buy votes.
But as we contemplate 35% tax rates and 143 pages of instructions alone for the 2006 Form 1040, lets take a trip back in time. To the right is the Form 1040 from the year 1913. Four pages, with one page of instructions. Taxes were only paid on income over $61,000 in today’s dollars, at a tax rate of 1%. The highest tax rate was 6% for those earning over $10 million in today’s dollars. And the government broke even. Obviously as a society we now need more money to fund more and more programs… and waste, but this sort of makes you think. Especially the simplicity of the collection. VAT anyone?
The concept of taxes and numbers in the billions can be a bit overwhelming, so perhaps an example that we can really relate to would be helpful. Not necessarily a historical perspective, but an example of using an extreme condition to force ideas to leave the proverbial box. Several years ago I was running a 50-press molding operation at a Fortune-50 medical device company. As you can imagine, the paperwork was stunning. I literally filled up a file cabinet every day… and all of that had to be kept for a decade or so. 24/7, non-stop, 365 file cabinets a year.
What always bugged me was that the FDA cGMP regulations were only 20 or 30 pages long. Corporate took that and turned it into 100 pages of guidelines, which the divisions took and turned into 1,000 pages of procedures, which each plant took and turned into 10,000 pages of operating instructions, forms, and the likes. Which is why a work order packet for a simple molded part could be several inches thick. Most of that was forms filled with signatures to assure that every process step was followed, signatures of QA oversight to ensure process steps were signed, and even inspection forms ensuring that the work order packet itself was completed properly. I never fully understood it. If we did things right, then it was all redundant and meaningless. And each signature and data entry was another potential source of failure, which would result in innumerable NCMRs.
So I thought we should simplify things a bit, and I proposed the form you see at the right as a replacement for the inches-thick work order packet.
The plant QA manager looked at me like I was a blasphemous heathen and most of my folks cowered in fear. The furthest my concept got was to be posted on my office door, which in some way was like a pin stuck in a QA voodoo doll. It aggravated them to no end, providing me great amusement. But it also got people talking and thinking. Part of the box had crumbled.
I left the company soon afterwards, partly out of frustration with the bureaucracy. Abbott moved most of the operation to Costa Rica, then spun the plant off to Hospira, which sold it to ICU Medical. I’m guessing my proposed work order form is no longer hanging on that office door in the bowels of the molding operation, beneath the monster leaking condensor. I don’t miss that freezing office with a perpetual leak that some of my folks surrounded with a shower curtain with a soap-on-a-rope hanging on the wall.
Such historical or extreme examples may not be realistic in today’s world. But sometimes you have to dream of them, talk about them, and perhaps even consider them as actual alternatives in order to force open the box within which traditional thinking lives.