Can Lean work for single (small) business owners?

I get asked all the time if Lean is just for manufacturing or can it be applied to any type of business.  Of course the answer is yes! Less often a question arises - Lean might be all very well for a decent size business, but what about the solopreneur? Or even the Mum and Dad business, a small start up perhaps?  What does Lean look like in these situations?

To answer this question, let’s go back to the basics and reflect on what Lean is all about.

For any business, company, organisation practicing Lean the main objectives are simple - “How are you improving each day, each week to add value to your customers”?  It is about applying a continuous improvement mindset to the work that you do.  Lean is about business improvement.

What could this look like for a very small business? 

Let’s answer this by exploring what it takes to create a customer focus. Begin by asking yourself - “What am I doing to improve my customer experience”? How am I improving their journey as they buy my goods or services?

I know a lot of questions!, but the core of continuous improvement is about seeking, exploring, asking questions and learning better ways. Then ask yourself -  How did they find you, how effective and user friendly are your online tools? Back in the day when creating a website was an expensive exercise this may have been a real barrier. Now self-build websites are common.  These tools have been refined to where the business owner can take charge of 95% of the content, engaging in developers when it is out of normal skills or a time issue.  There used to be an excuse, now there isn’t.  I still see some very average websites that don’t appear to have been updated since 1996. Once this can be improved, look into your SEO tools - these can be measured and improved daily, weekly - you just need the discipline to put time aside to do something about it.

Once this process has been improved, the challenges will shift. You have improved people finding you and contacting you, so how good do you follow up on enquiries? Measure your own performance (e.g. respond within 2 hours or 24 hours), are you always achieving your own standard? If not, what can you do to make sure you do?  Continuous improvement strikes again.

How do your business ‘systems’ enable you to achieve the important tasks consistently at the required standard every time? Are your processes current or up to date ? If you have a vision to grow the business so that in the future you are going to employ staff or even sell it as a saleable commodity, start as you intend to finish.  Create standards, have written procedures, do this early in your journey so that it doesn’t become a big mountain to climb a few years later! Once you have these in place, set aside time once a month to flick through one procedure to see if it is current or even relevant. Keep your information fresh and relevant so it adds value to your business.

If you need to, map out your processes. Sometimes it can be helpful to bring in a trusted friend or advisor to help you, to be the devil's advocate, to ask those annoying questions like “why do you do it that way”? Yes, use the 8 wastes to help identify improvements.  

Then look at how you organise your work, equipment and information.  What is your 5S standard?  If you are anything like me, this tends to drop off and I need to put time aside to do a Kaizen event to get this back up to standard (or in other words, spring clean!).

Now look at your overall performance or output. What are your metrics that indicate you are on track for success?  What are the number of calls per week or month, client hours per month or billable time to achieve your plan? What is your opening rate of emails, what are the trends, how can you tweak the content or subject header that will increase the amount of people reading your content.  I am constantly looking at my website metrics, using a PDCA approach to pushing out new content and seeing what approaches help increase the traffic.  With this I know the success rates of emailing versus posting on social media.  So I understand what approaches add value for the time I spend across these activities.

Some may call this common sense approach, but it is following the fundamentals of Lean Thinking.

Now let’s focus on your personal development, investing in yourself as the business owner, subject expert. You improve your customer experience to create that ‘wow’ moment each day, you improve your business processes to enable that wow moment to happen more often than not.  You also need to develop yourself, keep learning, adding new skills to enable all those improvements to work on a daily basis.  

At the end of the day, Lean is about people.  The focus in larger organisations is to develop and empower people across the business.  The focus for a single business owner should be to put aside time to develop yourself, keep learning and keep engaged in the process.  The last element might sound crazy, but when you work yourself you don’t have the support and accountability of other people.  So how can you create accountability, motivation as a single operator? What helps you to keep motivated, engaged (apart from the bank account!) ?  What makes you get up each day and say to yourself “I am going to smash this today”?

Learning is a big aspect of this.  You probably started your business because you were good at something and had a passion for it.  But how do you keep ahead of the chasing bunch? It might be technical skills or learning about the aspects of running a business, adding new services or products by upskilling yourself.  Whatever it may be, keep learning, become a thought leader in your industry. 

In New Zealand there are many groups or organisations that you can align with.  Universities are great for specific learning or doing an MBA for example. The Icehouse has a number of courses to help upskill SME owners and leaders. Chambers of Commerce have multiple networking and learning events that will add value to your business and your knowledge. Alternatively, go and visit examples of excellence in other businesses outside of your sector. What can you learn from others to be inspired to achieve that next level of success? 

Time and costs may be a real challenge, especially if you are still in the start up phase. I totally get this!  There are free options available, get on youtube, learn from the leaders in your sector, there are millions of value added content just waiting to be found. I personally watch far too many Lean and Lego Serious Play videos, watching and learning how other facilitators do a specific element, then I think about how I can add that skill to my service. I listen to a number of different podcasts while I drive between appointments, always grabbing an opportunity to sharpen the axe.

What I have just done is highlighted a few examples under the three core elements to a successful business identified in Jim Collin’s book ‘Good to Great’.  Lean thinking or continuous improvement is about having the discipline to put time aside to improve different elements of your business.  The challenge when you are the sales person, the office administrator, the courier etc all wrapped up in a nice tidy package - where do you ever get the time?

Unfortunately this is a question that only the business owner can answer.  It comes down to how much you value the time improving aspects of the business.  Do you see that time as a cost or an investment in your future self? If I was able to look at your diary for the following week, will I be able to see when you have scheduled in time to improve your business.  Success is not passive, getting better takes deliberate actions.  It can be hard at times, difficult to prioritise.

You might work from home so creating a space that has visual management tools and whiteboards up on the wall might be difficult to set up without overtaking the house.  If you are lucky and have a separate office, set up your metrics, have a daily stand up with yourself or do it with your kids so they can keep you accountable!!  If you are in the spare room, put all of this on the inside of the wardrobe door if you have to keep it tidy for others. I know someone who painted the doors in whiteboard paint! Then write up your targets and goals or game plan for the week. Set specific actions and put them into your schedule.  Prioritise the tasks and do the ones that have the biggest impact for the smallest effort.  Move onto the next task only when you have finished the current one.

That is it - Lean for the self employed, solepreneur. As always the concepts are simple but really, really hard to implement and sustain. Because it is just you, the discipline required is next level. My advice is the same as if you were a company with 30 or 300 staff.  Start simple, start somewhere then keep growing the habit. Most importantly keep improving no matter how small the improvements are.


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