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:
- repetitive actions;
- unique actions; and
- potential actions.
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 are implemented.
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
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
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 unpleasant tasks.
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
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 products.
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 initiating action.
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
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
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 tasks.
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 by 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 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 serving.
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 degree.
Coming closer to work life, think of
the repetition that we surround ourselves in in the workplace -
rituals that we each 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)
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 others.
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 compulsion
or 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
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 do not.
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
Heraclitus in the early Greek period
of philosophy said 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.
to White Papers