Wednesday, August 19

Everything Can Scale, Especially Mediocrity.

When marketers talk about automation, they don't always see the danger in it. Maybe it's because select benefits — lead generation, response counts, data tracking — outweigh most shortcomings.  But then when you move the principles of automation to something even more personal, like health care, it begins to feel frightening.

Health care professional Andy De Lao knows it. He warns that what we're scaling in health care isn't efficiency as much at it is mediocrity. Where care used to be extraordinary, he says, systems are making it "extra ordinary." You can even hear it in the vernacular. Terms like lean, defects, efficiency, output, capacity, scale, workflow, and productivity were all borrowed from industrial manufacturing.

Health care isn't alone. Those words creep up into almost everything nowadays — marketing, culinary arts, education. They seem to be everywhere. And sometimes, not every time, mediocrity follows.

Somewhere along the way, scalability becomes a setback. 

The last time I ate something from McDonald's (several years ago), I was keenly aware that it wasn't the restaurant that Ray Kroc built around the original quick service concept of Dick and Mac McDonald. Sure, phrase like quality, service, cleanliness, and value still exist, but with very different meanings than the original model.

Quality is now couched in comparison, the service is slower, the cleanliness sterile, and the concept of value somehow out of whack with the reality of the product. Half of the menu feels overpriced. Half of the menu feels cheap. What's worse is that the executive team can't seem to pinpoint the problem.

The problem isn't one thing that prevents McDonald's from getting its mojo back. It's everything. What we're witnessing almost every day at the chain is nothing less than a brand hemorrhage.

And the culprit? Scalability and mediocrity finally caught up with the clown. The systems that once made it a brilliant brand have crashed as it traded in a little on the phrases that made it famous.

Isn't this the same problem we're seeing with health care, where planning target volumes, designing intake forms, and timing medical consultations overtake the core function of patient care? Isn't this the same issue with education, where process is starting to beat out innovation? Isn't this the same challenge marketers have when attempting to understand the difference between automation and absenteeism in social media and content marketing?

I think Andy De Lao is right. There is some optimal point where art and efficiency can coexist. He applied it to his field of health care, but see it fits almost everywhere. Nothing great can scale forever.

The answer is simple: Automate the mundane, but not the art. 

Geoff Livingston gets it. He recently traded in writing columns for articles on his blog, noting that it helps set it apart from the more common opinion/posturing pieces that make up most blogs. And while that might seem like an odd analogy for health care, education, and culinary arts, it still fits.

There is nothing wrong with automation that schedules when you share articles, includes a stable of authors you really respect, or even makes you more efficient. But when you begin to phone in whatever if you are offering — blog post, patient care, or college class — mediocrity takes hold.

You see, there are some things that a restaurant kiosk or social scheduling or online class cannot replace. While all of them have merit, the real magic still happens with the human connection — spontaneous sparks that lead us light years away from whatever some mediocre outline prescribed.
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