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EDITORIAL: Progress And Otherwise

Posted On: 9/23/2006

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Much has been written and said about the danger of complacency, the "comfort zone," thinking "inside the box" and so on. We think more attention should be paid to the reciprocal danger of change for the sake of change, or confusing activity with action.

President Carter's friend Bert Lance famously warned, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Even this unquestionably practical advice, poignantly understood by everyone who ever has maintained machinery, has been cited as an example of the sort of dull stand-pattery favored by unimaginative inside-the-box thinkers.

To be sure, everyone can think of situations, personal or historical, in which change was needed but was not made. But almost everyone also knows of circumstances under which an unneeded change was made, and bad things resulted.

The industry discourse always has reflected this tension. Every new development, from fresh-brew coffee machines through bill changers and microwave ovens to automated data retrieval, has prompted some operators to complain that their stick-in-the-mud colleagues were retarding much-needed progress by their reluctance to embrace the new technology, and others to ask why they should withstand the expense and undergo the learning curve of changing a system that was working well, especially when their customers were not asking for that change.

The examples we cited, of course, all were important additions to the vending toolbox. But there have been many innovations, such as the magazine-loading cigarette machine and the vender that dispensed a choice of breads and fillings so patrons could assemble custom sandwiches, that were not.

It might be worth looking for the features that have distinguished successful innovations from blind alleys, solutions to problems that did not exist. Such an inquiry would start by recognizing that there are different kinds of innovation. Some come about when progress in science and engineering makes it possible to do things that had not previously been possible. Others result from careful study of the way things presently are being done, with an eye to doing them more efficiently.

Any innovation of either type needs to be considered critically. Technical advances often make it possible to do things that do not need to be done, and things that should not be done. Operational advances can offer alluring benefits that overshadow real drawbacks. Something that saves time and money may not be worth doing if it annoys customers, costs sales or impairs flexibility. (A long look at the Internet will afford many examples of all these varieties.)

At a minimum, it's always a good idea to implement something new in a context that allows one to pull back gracefully if it turns out not to work. Burning one's bridges almost always is a bad idea.