The Butterfly in Bangkok

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Small, uncontrollable activities have enormous impact on seemingly unrelated outcomes. In short, there are no accidents.

December 31, 2000
Dean Horowitz, Publisher

I once read a great example of Chaos theory. It argued a link between the movement of a butterfly’s flapping wings and a storm in another part of the world. It was called "The Butterfly Effect." Simply stated, small, uncontrollable activities have enormous impact on seemingly unrelated outcomes. In short, it put forth evidence that there are no accidents. Everything happens as it is supposed to.

Despite our attempts to understand the interconnectivity of the universe we never will because of the limits of our knowledge and perspective. This is one of the lessons we have been taught through years of religious education.

Best-selling science books during the last couple of decades focus on theories that enable readers to understand our inability to understand. These chaos theories enable us to come to an understanding that much of science is derived from the use of simplified assumptions, based on math that is "well-behaved," and then pushed to the point of being made irrelevant in its application.

In our businesses we have all come to call it the "Bad Day."

Somehow, be it arrogance or optimism, we need to feel in control, that we not only "get it" but we can "control it." We are going to deliver our product flawlessly on the promised date. It will represent, if not exceed, our customer’s expectations. Our years of experience, dedication and great teamwork will control the events so that perfection results.

The manufacturer made a perfect product. The delivery method was tender and thoughtful. The financial exchange was exact. The installation pulled together precision elements. The weather remained consistent and perfect. The work site remained pristine. Every member of the team believes in the same commitment to quality and performance. The requirements of the entire process are so well detailed that changes would never be warranted or even possible.

THEN, CRASH! A butterfly’s wings in Bangkok cause a windstorm in Iowa that shoots a rock into the bay window that then takes out an appliance the day of the walk-through timed to end before your in-laws arrive at your house for your wife's 40th birthday party and you need to still pick up the cake before the bakery closes at 3 PM.

Or your new client is at a dinner party excitedly talking about the construction of his dream home, only he happens to be talking with the one customer from last year whose project, despite warnings, you felt arrogant enough to take on. You know the rest of that story.

So while our attempts to manage risk may not control the butterfly in Bangkok, it might eliminate a few of the bad days. Detailed planning and communication will create a schedule that assures almost any problem can be fixed by the time the customer encounters it. By matching our capabilities with our targeted customer’s requirements we will meet expectations.

So while we are enjoying diminished risk, we have empowered our competitors with the opportunity to be more agile, more responsive than we now can be. We have diminished risk so well that customers must now meet our needs because we no longer can meet theirs. Forget exceeding anyone’s expectations. We deliver exactly what is ordered. In a world like McDonalds that is great. In a world like all of ours, that is lethal.

So it is up to us to embrace the "bad day" and the "chaos" as we try for the extraordinary.

Yes, the great team and control is essential. But in the end, it is humor that should be the last chapter in our understanding of chaos.

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