Around forty years ago, Dr. Venkataswamy asked a question – “Why can’t eye care service be offered with efficiency similar to McDonalds?” People found it an odd analogy. How can you compare a cataract surgery with a hamburger? But the metaphor did help create one of the most efficient eye hospitals in the world, Aravind Eye Care System. Framing the challenge is arguably the most important step in innovation and metaphors play a key role in that process. Here are 3 ways in which metaphors help in challenge framing.
Makes it more concrete: Dr. V could have said, “Let’s build world’s most efficient eye hospital.” Perhaps it might have worked. However, words like efficient and others like innovative, world’s best are abstract. They mean different things to different people. When you say – as efficient as a McDonalds – suddenly it makes the concept more concrete. There is a common image for all the people who are involved in the venture.
Brings out uniqueness: While Aravind took inspiration from McDonalds in building process efficiency, it was significantly different from McDonalds in its business model. Aravind is a not-for-profit organization in which paying customers cross-subsidize the poor patients. This was a case when Aravind was eleven bed hospital and it is the case when the size is several thousand beds. Metaphor can also help in bringing out the uniqueness of the idea. You could say it is different from McDonalds in its business model in the following way.
Generates new questions: Anybody who has been to McDonalds especially in the US would know that it has drive-through. So, one could ask, “How do we provide a drive-through for Aravind?” Of course, the question may or may not be relevant. However, it may take you in a direction not thought before. In fact, Aravind did end up creating a service where they prepare an prescription eye-glass in thirty minutes. This idea may or may not have been inspired by drive-through. But the point is, metaphors can be generative. i.e. They can help you raise questions not thought before. McDonalds customizes the taste of its products and services to local taste. You could ask, “How do we customize eye care to local culture?” This might lead to new ideas.
While Aravind was partly inspired by McDonald, now Aravind is inspiring other hospitals in India and abroad. I won’t be surprised if Narayan Hrudayalaya was partly inspired by Aravind. It is does to heart-surgery what Aravind is doing for eye care.
In short, metaphors make the challenge concrete, bring out uniqueness of the challenge and generate new questions. Thus metaphors help enrich the challenge.