The Cost of Inertia

Last week I closed out a safety deposit box that I had rented but hadn’t touched for over 20 years. In theory, I paid for the box to hold tax returns and valuables, but never visited it after placing some “starter” something into it when I opened the account (what was it?). The bank branch in our town had closed years ago and the safety deposit box had been relocated to a branch in a nearby town. So I had to drive 6 miles for this little errand. I was damned if I was going to pay $39 for another year’s rental!! For some reason, I decided to take action. I’d rather donate the fee to the Oregon Food Bank, instead of lining the pockets of a bank. To my amusement, the box had 3 coins in it—2 Susan B Anthony dollars and a 500 lire piece. Over the years those coins have cost me $600.

Why did it take me so long to stop paying my annual fee and clean out the box? Plain and simple: inertia. As defined by

The tendency of a body to resist acceleration; the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest or of a body in straight line motion to stay in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force.
Resistance or disinclination to motion, action, or change.

In the busyness of life it’s all too easy to let things slide rather than fix ’em. I didn’t miss that $39 in my pocket, but I didn’t like paying for something I wasn’t using, either. As a small act of, well, determination, I took an hour out of my busy day and “fixed” the problem. Over the past year I’ve shut down my unused dialup service (saving $10/month, and readjusted my banking to eliminate most monthly fees). Now if I could figure out how to get my phone company to coalesce my home and DSL lines (that’s a long story not worth recounting here), I’d save myself another $300 per year. But two painfully long phone calls to my phone company haven’t fixed things yet. I’ve got to muster some determination before I try again. Every so often I get the itch to cut out waste.

I had lunch today with a software manager who described some costs of inertia in her organization. Inertia that makes for tedious retyping of data from one system into another instead of writing software that could handle the majority of data transfers. Inertia that keeps a 30 year old system chugging along, even though it hasn’t aged gracefully. Most software, as it ages, gets more complex and more difficult to maintain.

There’s a cost to inertia. In my case, a few hundred bucks a year. In companies with inefficient processes and creaky software, the cost can be quite high in dollars as well as the expense of people working at tedious (unnecessary) tasks. Lean software development practices aim to strip away excess waste in processes. But applying lean thinking to legacy systems and maintenance projects isn’t nearly as cool as using it on new initiatives. I wish it were. There may be no glory in chipping away at cruft built up because of inertia. But there should be. At the end of the day you will have left the world in a slightly better state. I know I have. My check to the food bank is in the mail.