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Last week we began thinking about the purpose of our business instead of about specific products to help us expand our horizon and develop a vision for the future. Regardless of the product, people will always have certain needs. We do not want to get caught in producing a product or service that people no longer want. When you think, “What business am I in?” Ask yourself:

What are our principle products or services?

What are some possible substitutes for these?

Why do customers buy these products or services?

What are the principle benefits they expect from these purchases?

Once you have clarified customers’ needs, you can think about how you have shaped or will shape the organization to meet these needs.

We also saw again that, while designing for the future we must continue to pay attention to improving our present operations. I concluded that this is a real point of concern in Ethiopia as I have often noticed that while something new is being introduced and while the new product or service is not yet fully worked out, tested and functional, the “old” product or service is suddenly dropped. I can think for example about the introduction of new rules and regulations and the introduction of new Internet services. Meanwhile products and services leave much to be desired and customers suffer. In a competitive environment some companies would soon be out of business indeed. Let me give an example of how a new system is introduced here and the old way is suddenly abandoned, at the expense of efficiency and customers.

Last year the Road Authority decided that the annual vehicle inspection should include the testing of cars with a new system. Computerised equipment was going to be used to test the quality and balance of the brakes and also the emission levels in the exhaust of the car was going to be measured. This is a good thing as adding such high tech tests to the otherwise limited physical inspection will presumably lead to having safer and cleaner cars on the road. So far, so good. It took however time to bring the necessary equipment into the country and install it in several locations, which delayed the annual testing process for a few months. Vehicle owners who wanted their cars inspected were told to wait until the new equipment was installed. Once installed, the annual inspection began but with a backlog of a few months. While previously the inspection was outsourced to a number of companies and the vehicle owner would have the car inspected within a relatively short time, the new system is installed and available at only twelve locations throughout the country, of which six are in Addis Abeba. So we now have a situation that the annual inspection process is faced with a backlog of a few months and with a limited capacity to meet the demand. As suggested in earlier articles on this subject, the answer to deal with such a situation is often found in working harder, not necessarily in working smarter. Indeed, the companies carrying out the inspection now begin work early in the morning and continue until 10pm to try and deal with the backlog. This does however not do enough in solving the problem that customers now face though. When I went to have my car inspected recently, I found cars lining up all around the block. I joined the line and began waiting, like everybody else. Two hours later, the line of cars suddenly began to move, not just a few metres but over quite a stretch. I ended up around the corner and waited again for some two hours or so. The same thing repeated itself and I now ended up closer to the entrance of the compound where the inspection took place. It was now lunch time and surely after lunch I was able to follow the cars in front of me into the compound. Meanwhile the line of cars still outside, continued to make it difficult for the traffic in the neighbourhood to flow. In fact, during the hours of waiting outside I witnessed several situations, during which traffic was totally blocked, as the waiting cars occupied a full lane of the road. It remains interesting to observe how most drivers make the jam worse and how only a few drivers try and make traffic flow again in such situation. Cars face each other in a locker horn fashion and none of the two drivers is willing to make a move. Anyway, I now made my way into the compound and it took another two full hours to finish the process. I must admit I was a bit worried and asked myself what would happen if my car was found not to pass the test.

At 5pm I was on my way home again, happy that I had made it and quite exhausted. After all I had spent the whole day sitting in my car in the blazing sun, thinking about all the work I could not do, save from making a few telephone calls. The next day I now took my documents to the road authority to renew my road license, which took half a day again as this office faces the same backlog. Here many vehicle owners are crowded around a window and all try to pass their documents through a small hole and get the attention of the processing officer to attend to their case. No orderly system whatsoever. I have witnessed a few heated arguments break out as some people lost their patience and temper, while others tried to sneak their papers in between the rest.

This real life example – and I can think of some more – serves to illustrate how a new system is introduced, without considering how best to continue present operations and services. We see that working harder alone does not solve the problem. Surely, this new system, and I repeat that it is good to upgrade the vehicle inspection system, could have been introduced gradually and in a way that would have caused little disruption. It could have been decided for example that vehicles older than 10 years or with more than 250,000 km on the clock, should be the first to be tested with the new equipment as they are the ones more likely to have problems. Allowing newer cars to be inspected, using the existing system in the meantime, would have helped to prevent the backlog we are witnessing now.