A stitch in time saves nine

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Recently, my 10-year-old water heater, which showed signs of corrosion at the joints, crashed from its perch, bringing down the water pipes connecting the mains to the two bathrooms. Fortunately no one was in the near the heater at the time it came crashing down, but it did cause water supply disruptions for three days until the plumber could restore normalcy. It also cost be a total of $800.

The issue is that I could easily have avoided all this if I had simply replaced the water heater when it showed signs that it needed replacing. The cost of the heater itself was only $290. Putting in another $100 for installation, that would have only been a $400 job. Instead I paid double because I had waited.

How often has this happened to you, when you should have done something earlier but procrastinated, thereby ending up with a much larger and more costly solution in the end? The cost may not just be in terms of money. In my case, it was also the 3-day drought.

Indeed, a stitch in time does save nine.

Systems thinking explains this. In a non-linear system, and all systems are non-linear, two things are common: timing unpredictability, and compounding. Timing unpredictability means that we cannot apply linear thinking models to get at the best time to do something. If the first signs of corrosion appear, it does not mean that we can wait until there is a more pronounced indication of wear to effect change. The same applies to health. Having a sore throat does not mean that we can wait until we get a fever to deal with it. There are no fixed or linear timing models when dealing with systems.

Next is the compounding effect of systems. The damage starts out small but it grows in exponential manner so that the extent of damage yesterday was comparatively smaller than the extent today. This non-linear amplification of outcome – be it damage, costs, interest, growth – has a profound impact on decisions. If you expect things to get worse, then you had better do something about it right now; it you expect things to get better, then it would be better to wait a little longer. Yet, this waiting has to be mitigated by the limits to growth. Nothing grows ad infinitum, and when your system has reached its limits, any more time would start it on the road to decline.

So what does it all mean?

In business, as in life, you need to have indicators to show if you were heading in the right direction or not. If the indicators are positive, carry on the route but be mindful of when it will start turning down; if the indicators are negative, don’t wait for it to get worse before doing something about it. A stitch in time saves nine.

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