“All inquiries carry with them some element of risk.” – Carl Sagan (Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, 1979)

Every time I take a walk around a company that I own and talk to an employee I hardly know, I discover something interesting about my business. More often than not — I’m not happy to tell you — that something is unpleasant.

This morning, for example, I discovered that AP has an internal mail sorter who doesn’t sort the mail properly — and this causes the mail-delivery people time and aggravation. I found out that the problem has been going on for a long time and that his manager has been made aware of it but has not corrected it. (Apparently, she sent out a general e-mail on the subject and considered the problem solved.)

I also discovered that when the receptionist of one building is out on an errand, she asks the people in customer service to back her up. But the people in customer service can’t hear the doorbell ring. So if you ring the doorbell when the receptionist is gone, you are likely to stand there for a very long time.

These kinds of problems won’t stop your business, but they will take the life out of it drop by drop. Unless you have a way to detect all the little problems, they will gradually, but certainly, get worse. And by the time you discover what has been going on, it may be too late.

This is the phenomenon known as “incremental degradation.” The associated theory is this: Your business and/or product can be ruined by very small degradations in quality/service. The individual degradations aren’t fatal in themselves, but the sum of them is.

As far as I can see, there are only two things you can do about entropy:

1. Set very high standards. Spend a weekend at a Four Seasons hotel. (See Message #209.) You will learn — if you don’t already know it — what “first-class” service really means. Convey this concept to your managers and never accept second-class service again.

2. Walk around and talk to people, especially the rank and file. They will welcome the chance to tell you what is wrong, because they have been living with it — unhappily in most cases — for quite some time. Knowing that they can help make things better is a significant reward.