Understanding Friction Versus Inertia

inertia conservation law cartesian

No, this isn’t a physics lesson.

Okay, maybe it is, in a way. I talk a lot with my clients about processes — the ones they’re using and, just as importantly, the ones they aren’t.

With the processes that they’re using, the questions center on what’s working, what isn’t and what changes can be made to improve them. With the processes that they aren’t using, the questions are variations of, “why not?”

With most things, consistent application is key to making things work. Like with fitness, a diet or exercise plan that you can commit to every day is more effective than some idealized but unrealistic one you only follow intermittently. Similarly, General George S. Patton said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” It’s also important to understand whether you’re trying to roll out something new or refine something you already have. there are factors that will impede your efforts. I think of those factors in two broad categories: friction and inertia, and they’re defined as such:

  1. Friction is where your processes are slowing you down.
  2. Inertia is where your people are slowing you down.

While the two are intertwined and solving one can help solve the other, they’re also distinct from each other. Both friction and inertia come in many flavors and variations, requiring clear analysis to identify them and their underlying causes. When it comes to your systems and processes, it can be easy to identify which ones are slowing down the company and impeding good results: Your team members will tell you.

Just one example, and I’ll try to keep it brief: At one sales job, I had the point of sale, and the inventory control was two separate legacy systems in independent silos. Running a sale through the till didn’t adjust the on-hand inventory. That required a separate step: having to reconcile your invoice into the inventory system. Reconciliations were a hassle, and management put the onus on the salespeople to do their own reconciliations.

This process was the absolute apex of friction. The more sales you made, the more reconciliation you had to do. The more time you spend reconciling your invoices, the more time you lost from the sales floor catching new customers.

No one wanted to do them, so they didn’t get done. Or they got done later in the week — if people felt like it.
Needless to say, it was a disaster; the inventory accuracy was compromised, and the paper shrinkage was appalling. This is a dramatic example and, in fact, the worst one I’ve ever seen. It was also hard to fix without spending a lot of money, which the owners didn’t want to do.

Not all cases of friction will be that dramatic or expensive, but they’ll still cause issues. To solve them start with the question “How can we do this better?” and work from there.

When it comes to inertia, without going off on endless tangents (something I have to rigorously stop myself from doing) sometimes it’s a result of procrastination, and sometimes it’s prioritization. Procrastination is easy to understand; everyone does it, at least, that’s what I tell myself. After all, why put off until tomorrow what can be postponed indefinitely?

There’s more nuance involved with prioritization. It comes down to time management strategies, and how well those are implemented. Time management isn’t easy. After all, if it was, everyone would do it. And if your role has any responsibilities at all, you’re familiar with the daily tension between the important and the urgent.

We’ve been there: You start your work day, and you’ve got this nice to-do list you’ve made. You’ve got plans for what you’re going to get done today. Then your phone rings. Or an email pops up that can’t be ignored. Something suddenly needs your attention, NOW. Five hours later, you look at your same list, thinking, “well, better luck tomorrow.”

Where friction and inertia meet is your people: Remember that any system or process will be carried out (or not) by your team members.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: If people have a choice between which process to apply to what they’re doing, they’ll pick the one that’s the least work. Even if it’s the wrong one. So the previously addressed question of “How can we do this better?” should be followed up with “How can we make sure our people actually do this?”