Opinion Columns & Blogs

Dr. Cummings: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

You remember the Detroit car industry in the ‘70s: huge gas-guzzlers with long fins and big price tags. But they drove just fine -- for three or four years. Nothing wrong with these cars, not much to fix; “they weren’t broke.” So Detroit just kept pumping them out like biscuits from the oven. And we’d be still driving them if Japan hadn’t discovered “improvement.”

The Japanese car industry looked at cars in a whole different way. They didn’t see a car as “something to fix” but rather as “something to improve.” They improved the gas mileage by lowering the size and weight. They lowered the price tag by changing their suppliers. Each employee tried to improve some small thing in the factory each day. By 1980, Americans were buying more Japanese cars than American cars and Detroit began its gradual descent into the slum-city of the East.

Religions have traditionally been like Detroit in the ‘70s. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, lots of things did break over the ages, so churches have been busy scrambling around trying secretly to fix them. Wars like the Crusades, murders like the Inquisition, doctrines like indulgences and slavery, boring preachers -- these were all bad problems and they had to be fixed before people gave up on religion. The churches for many years spun excuses and reasons, and pointed fingers, trying to explain how these errors could have surfaced, how these problems had to be fixed, when nothing was really broken!

Spending time fixing stuff doesn’t leave much time for improving stuff.

For example, when the teenagers revolted, a few of the churches tried to fix the problem by creating special services for them (and in one case built a brand new church) with cool music and sermons in their own language, but they forgot to continue updating and improving their music and sermons when each new class of youngsters filled the pews with their new ideas and fads and definitions of “cool.”

Will our churches continue to think like Detroit thought until they, too, fail miserably? Or will they begin to think like successful business executives who live and breathe “continuous process improvement”? If you Google “defunct computer companies in America” you’ll find 167 pages full of them. What made Microsoft and Apple succeed? It wasn’t sitting around and thinking, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I know that for a fact.

What if all of our churches (yes, even the Catholic Church!) changed their mode of thinking? What if, like the Japanese, they began to ask if they could improve their “cars,” namely, their religion? In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Detroit executives truly believed their cars were perfect and didn’t need any substantial changes. Automotive engineers were trained to look for problems, not improvements. Many priests and pastors (not all) are trained the same way. Japan changed the automotive way of thinking. What could change the religious mode of thinking?

Each denomination and synagogue has its own set of systems and values that could be reviewed on a regular basis. Why not bring in a representative group of parishioners every six months to do a SWOT analysis? Have them brainstorm:

What are the Strengths of this organization? What are we really proud of?

What are our Weaknesses? In fact, what are we ashamed of?

What are the Opportunities we have to improve our organization?

What are the Threats that could destroy us and wipe away our usefulness?

When this is done regularly, it’s easier to determine your values, your mission as a religious organization in Middle Georgia and your vision for the future. Only then can you set concrete goals and strategies for accomplishing something worthwhile. Successful businesses and organizations like Lee Robinson’s Circuit Public Defenders do this all the time.

Why not religious organizations?

Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corp. and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.