and sustainable business solutions -
and Repetition in Business Management
The core definition
of business is "the condition of being busy". In other
words, business is about activity - the perfomance of actions.
Each action we do falls into one of two basic groups: actions
that we have done before, and actions that we do for the first
time. The former group in turn falls into two groups: those
that we do regularly (i.e. repeated actions), and those that
we do a few times and then stop. The latter group again falls
into two groups: those that are unique - we do them once and
never again; and those that are the initial action in a series
of actions (i.e repetitions of that action). There is a third
group of actions worth mentioning, consisting of actions contemplated
but not carried out - potential actions.
In summary, the three types of
action may be characterised as:
unique actions; and
One of the key tasks of management
is managing action episodes and series of repeated actions
- deciding which actions should be performed once, which should
be performed repetitively, and which should not be performed
at all, and then ensuring that these decisions on actions
Repetition has been fundamental
to the development of business over the last 250 years. The
industrial revolution got going because of what Adam Smith
called the "division of labour". That is, the division of
large tasks carried out in varied fashions into small tasks
carried out repetitively according to a tightly defined method.
And as the nineteenth century wore on, the standardisation
of parts (screws and screw threads, for example) - i.e. parts
manufactured repetitively in a controlled environment to close
tolerences - enabled the rapid construction of ever-more-complex
machines. These two innovations, with the addition of mechanical
power to supplement human muscle, drove the industrial revolution.
In the second half of the twentieth
century, the continued breaking down of complex tasks into
ever-smaller repetitive steps enabled computers to be brought
in to control and carry out the repetitive steps. And today
with the application of management theories such as TQM and
Six Sigma, the goal of breaking down tasks into smaller and
smaller repeated steps is almost reaching its ultimate conclusion
in the production of processes and products that repeat almost
infinitely without defects.
It is interesting to note that
in the biological world repetition plays a defining role.
Evolution itself has been defined as "replication with modification".
In other words, the DNA code in biological entities replicates
itself from one generation to the next (i.e. it repeats the
same code in each generation) with the occasional "accidental"
modification, where the code doesn't get repeated exactly,
but contains a minor "error".
What drives biological evolution,
therefore, is repetition with the occasional change to that
repetition. As described above, these modifications can be
either unique (the DNA mutation is not conducive to survival
and the entity dies at some point before reproduction) or
they can initiate the start of a new repetitive series (the
DNA mutation is conducive to survival and the entity goes
on to reproduce and successive generations continue to reproduce).
Unlike evolutionary repetition
with modification, in business we do not rely on chance modifications
to make progress; we can intelligently assess which actions
should be repeated, which actions should be terminated, which
actions should be modified and which actions should be abandoned
before being initiated. The judgement of which of these to
do in what circumstances is a key task of management.
A lesson to be drawn from biology,
and the history of economic development, is that repetition
is the norm and the best way to make progress most of the
time. Repetition enables:
control and administrative systems
to be developed to handle activities;
planning for the future (repeated
series of events are predictable);
efficiency savings through refinement
of the repeated events to closer and closer tolerances;
the bringing in of machines (including
computers) to perform tightly defined repetitive tasks;
improvements in human performance through
humans doing the same thing again and again and therefore
learning to do them better; and
improvements in human performance through
psychological adjustment to, and acceptance of, boring and/or
By breaking tasks down into simpler
actions and thus facilitating repetition, it also means that
the human role in repetitive tasks can be taken on by humans
less educated and less experienced, thus enabling these tasks
to be performed by those in countries who have not previously
been drawn into advanced economic participation - China, Vietnam,
and so on, contributing to the spread of wealth creation ultimately
to all parts of the world.
A further advantage of repetition
is that many small initiatives can refine the repetitions
to ever greater degrees of repeatability. This has led to
the high quality products and systems for which Japan is renowned,
where by repeating and refining actions (repetition with modification,
along the lines of Darwinian evolution) we can end up with
products which themselves carry on repeating the actions they
are intended to perform in a much longer series than other
On the other hand, each repetition
series has to start with a new action that is not, when performed,
a member of a series. So, although there will be far fewer
unique or initiating actions than repeated actions, they perform
a role of fundamental importance: without them there would
be no repetitive actions.
It is important to differentiate
between unique actions, that are not the first in a series,
and initiating actions that start a series. Some unique actions
are deliberately so. There is only one St Paul's Cathedral,
for example. Unique actions are necessary for business, and
can be used to execute a one-off fundamental shift in the
way in which business is carried out. As such, unique actions
should be entered into with care and contemplation.
Alternatively, some unique actions
are intended to be the initiating action of a series, but
for some reason they remain a single action rather than a
member of a series. Often this is because of the failure of
that action to bring about the intended result. Many new initiatives
fail in business, far more so comparatively than single actions
in a repetitive series.
Darwinian evolution is brought
to mind here, where maybe millions of single events (mutations)
take place for every event that starts a new series. We can
reduce this wastefulness, but only by taking a great deal
of care when deciding whether to go ahead with an intended
It is worth bearing in mind that
in biology, mutations are rare, and successful initiating
actions are much rarer. Through the application of intelligence,
we can increase the frequency of successful initiating actions
but they are still risky actions to perform.
Another fact worth noting is that
in Darwinian evolution the mutations that initiate repetition
or replication are usually those that are not too far away
from the normal series; the further away they are the less
likely the biological entity is to have the supporting systems
to cope with the change. In the same way, the more radical
the unique action, the greater the likelihood of failure.
It should be obvious that, in
successful businesses, the number of intended-but-not-carried-out
actions should in general be much higher than the number of
unique actions carried out, because actions will be abandoned
more readily before they are actually carried out if they
look like failing.
Another lesson from Darwinian
evolution is that mutations are more likely to be successful
when they are created during a time of rapid environmental
change; in the same way, businesses should be ready to take
more radical and a greater number of unique actions when in
a time of rapid economic or political change.
The Human Dimension of Repetitive
The human dimension of repetition
can be divided into two types: repetition that we have no
choice about, and repetition that we choose.
In the first category, human beings
are subject to many repetitious events. At the most basic
level, we are subject to biological repetitions on a daily
basis - waking/sleeping, hunger/eating, and so on. Much of
our lives are defined by our immersion in biological activities
which repeat from as often as second by second (heart beats)
to whole-life repetition (where we each repeat, for example,
the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decline and death only
once, but this cycle is repeated in all of us).
We also spend much of our lives
combating or managing our biological repetitions - trying
to extend, for example, the whole-life repetitions by exercising
and diet. In fact, trying to manage our daily repetitions
(diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and so on) is often a
conscious attempt to control and conquer the whole-life repetition
of eventual decline and death.
In the second category, human
beings can be defined by our stance towards repetition. We
spend most of our time repeating ourselves. Think of your
routine when you get up in the morning, or your journey to
work, or your favourite food. We repeat ourselves because
it is more efficient to do so - it is quicker and uses fewer
mental and physical resources. Think of the number of times
you drive to work and have no recollection of large parts
of the journey afterwards - you economise on mental resources
by settling into a routine. Or even think of the first time
you drove a car compared with now, and how much less mental
effort is required now compared with then to perform the same
Repetition also has symbolic importance
in our lives. Great state occasions, or church services, for
example, are steeped in repetition of rituals that can go
back hundreds of years. Also, the armed forces surround themselves
with repetition (i.e. ritual). Repetition seems to mark out,
and enhance the significance of, societally-important events
and actions, and bring social cohesion; and anything important
in our lives soon attracts its share of ritualised repetition.
Repetition is also used as an
aid to managing anxiety and stress - repeating the same activity
again and again in an attempt to exert some feeling of control
over events, or in order to divert your own attention from
the anxiety and stress or the events causing them. Watch people
in highly stressful situations and you will see lots of repetitive
behaviours taking place in order to calm nerves and displace
anxiety. Think of rugby players getting ready to kick a conversion,
or tennis players bouncing the ball too many times before
At an extreme, the use of repetitive
behaviour can tip over into Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,
where more and more repetitions of more and more actions come
to dominate a person's life as the person ceaselessly tries
to subdue anxiety and exert control by repetition to an excessive
Coming closer to work life, think
of the repetition that we surround ourselves in in the workplace
- rituals we individually indulge in and indulge in as groups.
They provide a sense of reassurance and community, leading
to greater commitment to the group.
Repetition, therefore, is not
just a means of achieving greater efficiency; it taps into
deeply ingrained impulses which can be used to improve workplace
cohesion and performance. Creating rituals in order to foster
cohesiveness and loyalty is one option. Taking it a step further,
creating rituals to ingrain management authority (the so-called
"cult of personality" option) is another.
Repetition is also useful in getting
people to accept their role or lot, or to come to terms with
things they were not originally happy with. It is worth noting
that prisoners become used to their routine, and some of them
find it very difficult to leave prison; repetition can make
people accept almost anything.
In summary, repetition is one
of the most powerful means of improving productivity and one
of the most important tools in the armoury of a manager. Understanding
the role that repetition plays in business, and applying that
understanding to the way we run the business, can completely
change the way in which a business is managed.
On the other hand, one of the
distinctive things about human beings is that they become
bored. That is, they become unhappy if a repetition series
extends too long. Most animals are happy to eat the same food
every day all their lives; most human societies put a premium
on at least some variety in their diet, and societies with
access to a wider diet often take advantage of that access.
A typical supermarket will have cuisine from many parts of
the world on offer, and many of the fruit and vegetables will
be flown in from all over the world.
How long is too long for an extended
series depends both upon the nature of the repetition and
the personality of the individual concerned (and that person's
ability to escape the repeated series - prisoners, presumably,
learn to cope with repetition because they have little choice).
Some people are happier with routine and repetition more than
Therefore, when managing people
it is important to take into account both the nature of the
series being repeated and the propensity for that series to
induce extreme boredom, as well as taking into account the
capability of individuals to cope with repetition.
In other words, repetition is
productive and efficient for human beings up to a certain
point, after which human efficiency and productivity will
decline. The history of economic development shows that this
is often the point when machines and computers are introduced
as they keep going at maximum performance when performing
endless repetitive series.
With some individuals, the decline
in performance will take place earlier and will be steeper
than with others. This decline can no doubt be staved off
through incentives, but not forever. Therefore, a manager
needs to judge which repetitive series is reaching the point
of declining efficiency for particular individuals (or classes
of individual) and will adjust routines accordingly. There
are many techniques available to managers to prolong the period
of time before a decline in efficiency, from vetting new recruits
for their boredom thresholds to introducing breaks in repetitive
series and diversions to mask the repetitiveness of the tasks,
switching staff between repetitive series, and so on.
In summary, therefore, repetition
is a key tool of management and an abiding impulse for all
people. The monitoring and regulation of repetition is one
of the most important aspects of management.
The Paradox of Repetition
Despite what has been said above
about the centrality of repetition in economic and human life,
it is actually impossible to repeat an action. Every action
we carry out will necessarily be carried out slightly differently.
Every action will be performed on things that change - objects
wear out, degrade in performance, and so on. The circumstances
surrounding the action also change.
Every repeated action we perform
in a series is different from all other ones in that series
because of the position of that action within the series -
we are one action closer to ceasing the series and one action
further away from the start. In fact, there will always come
a time when we perform an action for the last time, and often
we do not know that that particular action will be performed
for the last time when we do it.
Humans (and businesses) crave
stability and certainty, and we often think "if only I could
achieve so and so" we will have reached a point where we can
rest, a point where we can be still and no longer strive in
that particular way. But in fact, we are all in a state of
becoming; we and the world around us are processes rather
than fixed entities. For businesses this points to the fact
that instability and uncertainty are permanent features, and
that what we think is stable and certain will end at some
point; and even the business itself will end sooner or later.
Even with the greatest products
or services, target markets evolve and change (and even get
bored with a company's products and services) and so over
time move away from the impulse to purchase those products
and services. In Darwinian terms, the ecology of biological
entities is changing all the time; some changes will be conducive
to the thriving of certain entities and detrimental to others.
Some entities change in step with the changing ecology, others
In conclusion, while the concept
of repetition is fundamental to an understanding of business,
and therefore fundamental to being successful in business,
we should always bear in mind that repetition series always
end, and as we progress from action to action along the series
things do not stay the same - for us, our business, or the
economy in general. Bearing this in mind is also fundamental
to success in business. As Heraclitus said, "no man can step
into the same river twice", for not only does the river change
between steps, so does the man.
A final thought. Nietsche talked
of the "eternal return"; while experts all differ in what
exactly he was talking about, one thing he does seem to be
saying is that we should live our lives as though (or even
in the knowledge that) we will be condemned to repeat them
infinitely. Therefore we should make the best of them we can,
because who wants to repeat something miserable or dishonourable,
or repeat a life that is a failure?
For further reading: I won't give
a reading list, but just a few comments. Surprisingly little
has been written about repetition in any extended fashion
in philosophy, although it is a topic that comes up repeatedly
(!) in the history of philosophy.
Heraclitus in the early Greek
period of philosophy said, as quoted above, that "no
man can step into the same river twice", which challenges
the very concept of repetition. In more modern times, Kierkegaard
wrote about repetition in various places, including discussing
what it would be like to take exactly the same holiday twice.
As mentioned above, Nietzsche
discussed repetition in quite a few places in his works and
arguably the idea of the eternal return is an underpinning
concept for much of his philosophy. In the twentieth century,
Gilles Deleuze has given a book-length treatment of repetition
in Difference and Repetition.
And leaving philosophical books
aside, the film Groundhog Day explored the theme of repetition
in the form of a single day being repeated again and again.
The human corollary of repetition,
boredom, has also had some philosophical treatments. And an
exploration of how to manage boredom in a business context
is possibly a subject for a future white paper.