I’ve come across a few examples recently where people either have, or have nearly, re-invented something that already existed in an organisation.

This can be termed “re-inventing the wheel”. Clearly, such activities would be a waste of resources, but what was the nature of the problems, and how could they be avoided? The first case related to a company who develop specialist medical appliances and asked a consultant to develop a new piece of technology for them. This consultant had previously developed exactly the technology being requested, for this same company around 15 years ago. Successive re-organisations and four different Managing Directors over this time period meant the awareness of this development had been lost.

The second case relates to a client who is responsible for ensuring that a contractor on a major project fulfils the sponsor’s requirements. In this case the contractor had spent three weeks creating a 50 page maintenance plan (which is still not complete) but had not based it upon the previously agreed maintenance strategy. This has resulted in a duplication of work and a high risk that, when the plan is being reviewed, it will be found not to comply with the maintenance strategy.

In addition I have, like many of you, come across employees who have recreated parts of corporate IT systems using spreadsheets which can create endless data quality problems.

With current imperatives to increase efficiency and reduce wastage, no organisation can afford either to have resources that they have paid for which are not being exploited, or to develop things which either partly, or fully exist already. If you do recreate something which already exists, then you are running a risk that anyone who knows of this could accuse you of wasting time and resources.

So what easy steps can be used to avoid re-inventing the wheel?

  • Before creating a new deliverable or technology, ask yourself if something similar is likely to exist already. If so, ask your colleagues whether they know where such a thing exists
  • If an existing system or technology does not do quite what you require, enquire about the development plans – you may be looking for something which is already planned for delivery
  • Do searches of your document management system, intranet, shared folders etc. to look for related or similar documents
  • When you do create a new deliverable or technology, ensure that it is publicised appropriately (a spinoff is that your input is also publicised)
  • Ensure that any information deliverables (reports, policies, designs) are stored in your corporate document management system. Most importantly, ensure that they are named and referenced correctly to allow easy retrieval
  • Ensure that you have effective knowledge transfer mechanisms in place for when reorganisations take place, or when someone leaves the organisation – which is a good practice to have in place anyway
  • Above all, talk to those who may have greater insight into what already exists

What techniques would you suggest?

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2 thoughts on “Reinventing the wheel

  • 28th June 2010 at 05:45

    Very sound advice, Julian.

    Would not disagree with anything you have said. Have always tried to follow your guidelines and have advised my clients to do the same.

    The only time that these are hard to comply with is in organisations that are overly bureaucratic – not for the sake of quality, simply for the sake of bureaucracy! In such organisations one might have to wait years to get vital corporate information made available locally or to local applications. This forces people to create local databases.

    Then, when the creators of the local systems try to make this information, or knowledge of its existence, available to the rest of the enterprise, they are again blocked by bureaucracy!

    But that is no excuse for trying to do so.

    Excellent post.


  • 28th June 2010 at 06:41

    Interesting that you should describe the risk not as “wasting time and resources” but as “anyone who knows of this could accuse you of wasting time and resources”. This makes it seem that the point is to avoid blame rather than reduce waste.

    More seriously, there are two issues here. Firstly the trade-off between design time and search time. In the short term, it doesn’t make sense to spend half a day searching for something that you could build in a hour, even if the lifetime consequences of unnecessary duplication and complication may cost a lot more.

    Secondly, there is a trade-off between using an existing wheel (which might be okay but not perfectly designed for this particular task) and designing a better wheel. I’m guessing that there are engineers at any major car manufacturer dedicated to re-inventing the wheels – otherwise we’d still be using Henry Ford’s design.

    Thus the management challenge here is twofold. Firstly, making sure that there is sufficient access to existing knowledge and ideas to allow engineers to build on what went before. And secondly making sure that there is enough management information and intelligence to achieve a reasonable balance between innovation and reuse.



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