How Much Does Friction Cost Your Organization?

Have you noticed any of the following symptoms in your organization?

1) Too many unnecessary meetings

2) “Corporate politics”

3) Low employee morale

4) Avoidable delays and errors

5) Under-performing employees, even among the best

6) Cost overruns, despite financial discipline

7) Perception of poor customer service

8) Lengthy negotiations with partners and vendors

9) High legal bills

10) Slow pace of innovation


What is friction? Friction comes from resistance to the flow of energy. Where does resistance come from? What causes friction?

1) Weak leadership (integrity, clarity, commitment, focus)

2) Poor communication

3) Inadequate information flow (sharing)

4) Weak accountability and controls

5) Lack of focus and/or wrong focus

6) Unproductive personal characteristics, e.g., selfishness, egocentricity

7) Inattention to customer feedback

8) Poor Human Resource practices (compensation, selection, review)

9) Lack of initiative (experimentation is discouraged)

10) Low tolerance for failure

What do these factors have in common? They involve human processes, activities that require humans to interact with other humans, within the organization and with people outside the organization. Some describe bad behavior, actions that are dishonest, selfish, or simply incompetent. In our drive to quantify everything, to assign numerical values to every activity and every outcome, have we forgotten how people actually choose to behave?

What causes friction? PEOPLE DO.

The goals of increasing efficiency and productivity are laudable and necessary for a business to survive and grow. But, in many ways, they show only the most superficial reflection of the complexity of how organizations function. How did we get here? Some people blame the desire of business to emulate science, to adapt scientific methodology to analyze how processes can be designed and implemented. Not a bad idea, but what about the people?

Some organizations believe their employees are a natural resource of labor to be extracted and squeeze every ounce of energy out of them, in the name of efficiency and productivity. Their management philosophy: give employees the minimum amount of information needed to perform their duties.  Don’t let them think! That would only divert their attention from their assigned tasks. God forbid they might want to do something creative that might not be aligned with “the corporate way”. When they are depleted, as all natural resources must eventually be, throw them away and start with fresh meat. Best to train them while they are young and strong. When they get older and wiser, they will be slower and cause friction.

If friction is so bad, why does it persist? Why don’t we change these ineffective practices? Friction exists everywhere, even in organizations with strong, intelligent leaders. Why isn’t ”better leadership” the answer to this problem?

Processes at the organization level are complex and require multiple interactions among people at varying levels of responsibility. The traditional view of corporate hierarchies is that they exist to control the flow of information. What? That can’t be right.

Consider any organization. A government agency is one of the easiest targets to identify with and is a most egregious offender of the principle of effective information flow.  Where does power come from? Having knowledge and information that others do not allows leaders to command resources and dictate policies. Their position: “I can’t allow you to have access to “secret information” because I can’t trust you to know how to interpret and act on it appropriately”. For example, how can we send young men and women into battle when we are certain that 90% of them are probably going to die? Military commanders have done that for centuries. What stories could possibly inspire such unquestioning loyalty? How does such a process operate with so little friction? Is extreme discipline the best answer?

Why is digital transformation so challenging to implement? Rationally, automating the flow of information so that processes can be self-regulating (via software/hardware) should reduce friction because there is less human involvement. Amazon’s fully automated warehouses are an amazing tribute to the power of digital invention. At the same time, Amazon has a reputation as a toxic work environment where people, even high level professional staff, burn out after just 2-3 years and move to other companies. How does the leadership vision reconcile these different aspects of the same company?

When we think of a process purely as a sequence of mechanical actions, that’s clearly a candidate for automation. When those mechanical actions currently require humans to do white-collar work, automation can come in the form of software. What happens at the “edges” of these networks and environments, where real people have to interact with other real people, e.g., in the context of customer service? Does a customer service rep become reduced to a human voice interface for a computer-enabled Artificial Intelligence? How does a customer feel when they receive exceptional service? Feel, not think. How does the feeling of “exceptional service” get programmed into lines of code? What happens to those “voice-interfaces”? How do those employees increase their value to the company if the only value they are allowed to deliver is pre-determined by automation?

Maybe friction is not a bad thing, after all. Maybe it is an unavoidable fact of human life. Maybe the symptoms are warning signs that we are forgetting that organizations comprise people delivering a service to other human beings. Maybe we need these reminders that we are all fallible and searching for ways to become better, not just at our work, but also in relationships with all the people we encounter. Maybe we need to be reminded that our lives have meaning only in the context of being connected. Our happiness and satisfaction in life depends on others.

Challenge: Pick a symptom of friction in your life, professional or personal, and reflect on how you can improve someone else’s life. DO THIS TODAY!


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