19 August 2010

To Hone, Not To Sharpen

The 'honing' stick is a classic piece of every knife set. The long cylindrical piece of ribbed steel is often mistaken as a 'knife sharpener'. It’s not. It’s a honing stick. You may think, as I did for many years, that sharpening and honing are the same. This would be a mistake. Honing and sharpening are very, very different things.

The process of sharpening is simple: drag the knife blade across the sharpening stone at a predetermined angle. The knife is dragged across the stone, yes a stone not a steel rod, until a new edge is formed. In the process of sharpening actual pieces of the knife blade are broken off as the steel grinds against the rock. Sharpening should only need to take place when the blades edge is destroyed.

How is the blade destroyed? As the knife is used to cut, the precise steel edge is forced from side to side until it eventually curls over. Maybe you haven’t seen a curled edge, but you’ve probably used one before. We call them dull knives. With a dull blade you can sharpen it, thereby removing the dull edge and creating a new edge and in the process removing part of the knife. The better solution would be to hone the knife.

The process of honing is equally simple as sharpening: drag the knife across the honing stick at a predetermined angle, about five times for each side. As the blade is dragged across the honing stick there should be a pleasant and harmonious 'zing' sound with each stroke. As the blade is dragged across the ridged honing stick, the curled edge is grabbed and pulled up, in essence uncurling the blade like a cowlick. The straightening of the blade makes it cut sharply and smoothly again – and here’s the reason for doing it – all without removing any steel from the blade. Thus, with the process of honing, the sharpness of the blade can be maintained along with extending the life of the blade almost indefinitely.

Let me take a moment and apply this to organizations: When a new process is rolled out in an organization, it is usually designed to cut a difficult problem into more manageable pieces. As time goes on the new process loses its edge as it tries to cut into the problem. As the new process loses its effectiveness managers might be tempted to sharpen the process again, again. The problem with sharpening is that the process is ground against the hard stone of bureaucracy, with each pass removing pieces of the blade. Over time the blade is destroyed and the knife is useless.

Instead of grinding the process into nothingness, managers should hone the process. This can be done by thoroughly reviewing the process and looking to see where the process might have curled over, thus causing the process to be less effective. Once the curling has been identified, then the process can be straightened so it can maintain its effectiveness.

One time honing is not enough though. With knives, honing should take place after each time the knife is used; each and every time. While it may not seem practical to review processes each time they are used, consider that a full fledge investigation is not needed. Instead, each individual completing the process can ask themselves a few simple questions: Did the process flow naturally? Was the next step always clear? Was there any place where the process hung waiting for a manager to make a decision that the individual could have made? Was unnecessary information collected, distributed or recorded? Are there any obvious changes that should be made?

With these few simple questions being asked after each process is completed the organization can use the cumulative knowledge of all the process workers to keep the process sharp and effective, or if needed consider the process destroyed and rebuild the process by sharpening it and trying again.

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