Sunday, May 09, 2010

Science of Business – Made Easy! [Friction]

Friction is one of the more useful terms in business for which the origins are clearly in the field of science. Friction, by definition, is the rubbing together of 2 or more surfaces. That rubbing produces heat, wear and eventual failure of components. Friction is why cars have radiators and door hinges need oil. Friction is present in almost all mechanical processes and something to be mitigated as it cannot be eliminated.

In business, friction is equally ever-present.

In business, there are common phrases heard around the office such as “rubbing someone the wrong way” or “I am getting heat because I disagree with the plan.” Each of these phrases draws on the science behind friction. In these cases however, the rubbing is not physical but emotional. When 2 people disagree, their personalities and viewpoints clash and “rub” against one another because they are not going in the same direction. That rubbing produces friction and just as in the science world, the result is “heat”. Just as in science, the harder the rubbing action, the more heat that is produced.

When a manager announces a change of direction or policy, those who find themselves at odds with the change can be expected to produce friction as the direction they desire to go is not the direction of the business. Until such time as their agreement on the change is secured, it would be expected to hear “squeaking”, “groaning” and other audible indications of friction. This is just a simple rule of science.

Friction occurs in a great many other parts of the business world. In fact, whenever 2 or more people come together, there is always a possibility of friction. Sometimes the friction happens quickly and then dissipates such as a small misunderstanding and sometimes the friction can last a very long time with its continuous production of heat. You’ve heard of employees needing to “vent” their frustrations. Yes, that’s heat coming from some source of friction in the business.

Just as in the mechanical world, friction is the enemy of the production system. When the factory machines start to squeak, maintenance personnel need to be quick to locate the source of the noise and get things back to operating quietly. Left unattended, every shop foreman knows that a squeak is a warning sign of something much worse to come if left unattended. In the business world, this same rule applies.

If an employee starts to “squeak”, immediate attention is needed to uncover the true source of the squeak and return the employee to being a productive contributor. Left unattended, the squeaking can get louder, can start “sympathetic squeaks” elsewhere in the company and even lead to a breakdown in the production in the business. As in many machines, the squeak may be a bit hard to detect at first but like a good shop foreman, a good manager who has been around his employees for years can detect a squeak long before it is detectable to the average employee. Sometimes the only manifestation of friction is heat. If you have worked in an office for any length of time, you can tell when a cloud of friction has settled in versus when the business is firing on all cylinders. The key is to be sufficiently alert and observant to recognize the signs of friction.

Friction exists in the world of science and the world of business. No way to escape the fact that every business will experience friction at one time or another just as every machine needs a bit of maintenance now and again.

In the world of machines, friction is often overcome with various forms of oil. It may be grease, liquid oil or water but unless the parts creating the friction were never designed to meet – in which case you fix the broken parts - the solution is to add a lubricant. In cars engines, motor oil provides a thin layer of lubricating material so that parts that appear to be rubbing are not actually touching one another. Door hinges get a bit of grease to stop hinges that are making noise. In many cases, the oil also helps to keep the rubbing parts cooler.

In the business world, the “oil” comes in the form of communication. In fact, communication is the only solvent that addresses business friction. Communication removes the friction that comes from misunderstandings and confusions. Communication, like oil, may be needed in varying quantities depending upon the circumstances.

A brand new car motor needs 4-5 quarts of new oil and the oil needs changing more frequently in the early life of the motor. In a new business or when a major restructuring occurs in an existing business, there is a similar need for large quantities of “business oil” until the new motor is running smoothly. Call it a “break-in period” if you like. The fact is that any sort of dramatic change or continuous series of frequent changes in business direction needs to be accompanied but large quantities of communication if there is a desire to hold down the level of squeaking. Failure to do this produces disastrous results.

So how do you “change the oil” in your business? Periodic meetings with the employees. Regular messages from all the levels of management in the company. In organizations that recognize the importance of constant communication with the employees, they are consistently the smoothest running companies you will find. Squeaking is a rare event and easily addressed as there are few other noises to drown out even the smallest of squeaks.

The fact of the matter is that today, a great many companies are running so lean that the time needed to communicate to the company’s “engines” is often pushed down the list of priorities. The oil is left in an extra 5000 miles and the filter is not changed. Little squeaks develop and are ignored as there are tasks considered more important. Suddenly a major breakdown occurs and management has a terrible look of surprise on their faces. Shame on them. They have no reason to be surprised. They failed to maintain the company in good working order and it broke down. The problem and its solution are now more costly and will waste more time and energy than if the simple maintenance process of communicating with the employees had been left atop the priority list.

Communication is truly the lubricant that solves the friction that happens between people. In life inside and outside of the office, this fact holds true. The next time you start feeling heat in the office or start to hear a “squeak”, find the source and talk with them. Listen to what they have to say. Understand their viewpoint. You may not agree with the viewpoint but you must understand it. Do this and watch the squeak go away. Watch the heat disappear. Watch the working harmony return to the business.

If you would like help implementing a communication system designed to keep the wheels of commerce lubricated, please call me regarding available consulting services: 602-492-1088


  1. Strong analogy. Thanks for this.

  2. Glad you liked the posting. Please pass the link along to your friends and colleagues.