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Why Compliance Should Leave Low Hanging Fruit To The End

When it comes to implementing systems, or achieving anything of significant scope, size, or complexity we will at some point be advised to pursue low hanging fruit and easy wins as a place start.

This advice is usually well intended and at some level of analysis makes sense. It can help get things started while not getting bogged down with the hard stuff. It also doesn’t cost very much to make progress, at least at first. This will help concerned parties (i.e. upper management) feel better about our project when achievements are reported early and often.

So what's the problem?

The problem with fruit

The reason why we want to pick low hanging fruit first is that they are already ripe. They also are at risk of falling on the ground or rotting on the vine. However, what is most important is that they are ready to be picked – we don't have to wait, just grab a basket and start picking.

When it comes to projects beyond the simple ones the fruit analogy breaks down. To start with we are often not picking from only one tree or the same fruit. In fact we may not even have orchards growing any fruit at all. We need to build the orchard first and cultivate it so it will grow the fruit we need.

The biggest problem with the fruit analogy and particular low hanging fruit is that it leads to working on the easiest things first and leaves what is most at risk and what really matters to the end. This is when budgets are less, options are few, and there is very little patience to deal with things as we often will hear “just get it done.”

Those that manage project risk will know that it is best to front load efforts with the hard things, deliverables that are most uncertain, and particularly the tasks that will generate the greatest impact – the things that really matter.

Projects need to drive down uncertainty hard, fast, and first while focusing on those things that create the greatest value. This is where real progress needs to be made.

Compliance is fond of picking low hanging fruit

Unfortunately, when it comes to compliance, we like low hanging fruit and far too much.

Compliance often imagines non-conformance or audit findings as low hanging fruit or more specifically bad fruit. We look for them using audits, we pick them from the ground and take corrective action to pick them from the tree next year. We then rinse and repeat in the name of continuous improvement. At the end of the year we pat ourselves on the back for having picked so many bad fruit.

This reactive and reductive mindset is so prevalent that it is evidenced across almost every dimension of compliance when organizations concentrate their efforts on:

  • Addressing elements rather than the principles of a standard or regulation

  • Closing gaps rather than addressing root causes

  • Meeting mandatory requirements rather than all commitments

  • Relying on best efforts rather than best results

  • Focusing on Inspection / auditing rather than capabilities / performance

  • Achieving certification rather than better outcomes

  • Waiting (being reactive) rather than anticipating (being proactive)

These practices always leave the hard stuff to later and often for someone else to take care of. As a result, risks are never properly dealt with and the outcomes of compliance are never realized.

It is no wonder why compliance programs are seldom effective. Compliance is too busy picking bad fruit that it never gets around to preventing the fruit from getting bad in the first place.

We need a better analogy and a better approach.

Compliance needs to leave low hanging fruit to the end. In fact, It should abandon the fruit analogy all together.

Compliance is better imagined as treating a disease rather than picking fruit.

The prognosis of poor compliance if left untreated is the loss of a business and perhaps even the loss of life. We are better off to treat the disease not the symptoms. In fact, we are better off to prevent the disease in the first place. Maintaining the health of an organization and its stakeholders should be the goal of effective compliance.

This mindset will lead to a focus on anticipation, contending with risk, practising healthy behaviours, and treating illnesses over just focusing on symptoms (or once again picking fruit). If followed, this holistic approach will increase the probability of the organization being around for years to come.

It will mean doing the hard things first as we all know when we are trying to improve our own health. For starters, we have to exercise and eat well. Not easy, but necessary if we want to improve our health and also experience the benefits of a healthier life style.

The same is true for compliance. We need to do the hard things first. We need to exercise the behaviours and practices that produce better outcomes so that organizations can finally realize the benefits of their compliance efforts.

Time to leave the low hanging fruit and easy wins aside. It's time to do the hard stuff. Not easy, but necessary.



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