Every year thousands of executives and senior level managers spend millions of dollars trying to answer the question: how do I better run my organization? To accommodate this demand, a plethora of management books, tools, workshops, and lecture circuits are annually launched. Fortunately, every so often, a management book is written that presents a novel approach or unique solution – and Matthew May’s In Pursuit of Elegance is one such book.

While May’s book focuses on the creative process of crafting “elegant” solutions, yet another salient idea that surfaces from the novel is what he calls the “Law of Subtraction.” The Law of Subtraction says that an organization should seek to continuously improve the quality, cost, and delivery speed of its product/service (value-adding).

Summoning the lessons from his nearly ten years of work experience with the Toyota Motor Corporation, May suggest that well run organizations (value-adding) do this by focusing on eliminating to the best of their abilities the things that hurt quality, raise costs, and slow things down. To repeat: great organizations achieve their goal of continuous improvement by eliminating the things that negatively impact quality, costs, and time.

A simple case study will illustrate this point: Fortune magazine in March 2008 named Apple “America’s Most Admired Company,” as well as “Most Admired for Innovation,” honors stemming from the launch of its hugely successful iPhone. However, this market-changing innovation occurred as a result of Apple’s stop-doing strategy – or its implementation of the Law of Subtraction. As CEO Steve Jobs put it:

“We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.”

In practice, the Law of Subtraction suggests that your organization’s leadership team carefully define what mission-related product/service it excels at delivering and then begin the process of allocating resources in a “subtractive” manner. In the case of May’s old employer, Toyota, this approach (called the practice of Kaizen) decreased employee stress levels; led to higher and more consistent job performance; and reduced the wasteful use of organizational resources.

As you begin to think about your own nonprofit organization, and how the Law of Subtraction might apply, start by asking a classic Peter Drucker question: If you weren’t already in a particular program, would you start it today? If the answer is no, May’s Law of Subtraction suggest you may have found a jumping-off point.

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