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How does Newton’s law of inertia affect your work?

A while ago I was helping my daughter with her studies. The programme was about physics and Newton’s laws. As I sat there explaining them and helping to the best of my ability, it occurred to me that Newton’s laws do indeed apply to businesses and their development.

Well, I admit, it can be a bit of a confirmation bias, that is, you see things that match what you think about. Maybe I have been affected but I ask you to hold on a while longer and read on. Because there are lessons to be learned.

Newton’s three laws

It’s not as crazy as it might sound at first; Newton’s laws of physics apply to improvement work too. But what are Newton’s three laws?

Well, like this. Newton’s laws are three in number:

  1. The law of inertia
  2. The law of acceleration
  3. The law on effect and repercussions

In a mini-series, I will go through all three of them. So in this weekly newsletter we take on the first team.

The law of inertia

The first law tells us that an object stays at rest if nothing affects it. Furthermore, it says that once an object has gained speed, it maintains the same speed as long as nothing affects it.

This means that a stone lying on the ground will continue to lie there as long as no one or nothing moves it. For example, by someone picking it up and then doing a job. Pretty obvious so far. But then it becomes physically/mathematically more complicated to calculate the necessary forces and so on.

Let’s skip that for now and move on to business development and improvement work. A business that has no one to drive it forward and work for its development will not do so either. As humans, we have an inertia built into us, where any change of situation takes energy. Some say we are lazy by nature. If we really don’t need to do something, we won’t do it.

How to start mobility

It is a force that you, as an improvement worker, both need to counteract and use for improvement. You need to inspire and drive improvements. Otherwise it won’t happen. There are different ways of thinking and techniques to get from standstill to forward motion.

One of the most important is to understand that it takes energy to get started. Imagine that you have to make a stationary car roll. It takes quite a lot of energy to get it from its standstill. Once it “releases its grip” and starts rolling, it immediately becomes easier.

The same is true for improvement work in a business. It must be pushed forward by you as the leader making demands, setting expectations and then creating the conditions. The prerequisites include money allocated to the work, the opportunity for employees to spend time on improvement work and the opportunity for employees to improve their skills in how to do it.

The important thing is that you get started and create forward momentum. Because also remember that in a mobile world, there are only two options for any business; either you get better or you get worse, compared to the environment. Keeping up may theoretically be a possibility, but in practice it is very difficult as there are so many variables involved.

We are lazy

If we look at the fact that we as humans don’t want to change, or are lazy as some put it. It’s not just evil, because you can actually use it. The power of people being lazy and wanting to do as little as possible can make them engage in creating a more effective business.

Because then they figure that with a little effort they can win something even more in the future. By participating and innovating, they can find smarter ways to do the work. In this way, the work they do today will be done tomorrow with less need for energy. Great, then the laziness has been positive.

We see this throughout our world. Just think remote control instead of walking up and changing channels on the TV. Cycling instead of walking. The microwave instead of heating food on the stove. And so on.

This summer I saw an apple picking drum that means you don’t have to bend down and pick fallen apples one by one. Instead, you roll the drum around and the apples are “sucked” into the drum and can then easily be poured into the basket. Yep, an improvement that makes it easier for us.

What rolls, keeps rolling

Returning to physics and Newton, we see in the first law that once an object has gained momentum, it maintains it as long as nothing affects it in another direction. We can also take this into account in the improvement work, that once we have got the work going, it will be driven forward, as long as we can protect it from external influences that want to change its direction.

This is often easier said than done, as there are always those who think we should do things differently, or maybe not at all. We need to deal with that all the time. Here you need to create a protective shell around the improvement work to ensure that it is not disturbed. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t listen to external input, but just that we should manage it in our improvement work so that we don’t damage our own work.

For example, it may be that issues are discussed in the organisation that tend to become rumours, which then influence those working on the improvement work so that they hesitate and thus slow down and lose momentum. The protective shroud around improvement work needs to capture these issues and clarify if and how they affect the business and our improvement work.

So the law of inertia makes change hard to get started, but it can also be used to your advantage once you’ve got the work rolling.

I’ll come back to Newton and the second law, which talks about acceleration, and what we can learn from it in terms of our improvement efforts.