For a long time now I have spouted the benefits of a Business Improvement approach to a small and medium business (SME). Using Lean as a central element driving the improvement activity, there are multiple benefits to a business. Better work culture and a more profitable business are just two examples. However this is only useful if you know that there is an answer, that there are possible solutions available to the challenges you are facing.
The reality is the fact many business owners, certainly in New Zealand, have taken the leap from expert to business owner. After taking the leap of faith a strong majority have found there is a massive gulf to what needs to happen versus what they control and do on a daily basis. As a result, and I say this in the utmost respect of the people running a business out there in the wild, they don’t know what they don’t know. So when it comes to operating the business the processes implemented are what they have experienced or taught sprinkled with a few new ideas. It becomes their baby, so naturally they want to protect it - do it the way they want it done. That is one of the key reasons they went into business in the first place, so why ruin that?
Compounding these challenges, it takes a lot of convincing to business owners that someone like me, who has never worked in a job that is anything related to the business, may have ideas that can help them. It’s true, 90% of the time I work with business owners in which I have never worked in the sector, so I can appreciate the hesitancy.
If the benefits are not well understood, then what are the main signs that I look or listen for when a business owner or leader is describing the situation in their business. These are the red flags that tell me that there are some long standing issues within the business even if, from the outside, it might be a successful business.
Sign1: Staff are always making mistakes
This is a great indication that the expectations, training or standards have not been implemented well if at all! In my time either working as a team leader, manager or consultant I have not met anyone who purposefully goes out of their way to do a bad job. If mistakes are occurring on a regular basis it is the system that is making them fail, not the person. When this is happening, look at how the standards or expectations are being communicated or set. Are there documented processes available or current? What is the training or orientation like for the job / role / task? Or is it a case of the boss expecting the team to be mind-readers on how they want things to be done?
Sign2: I am always late home doing long hours at the office
There are times when we need to put in that little bit of extra effort, that is OK. But is this happening on a daily basis? That isn’t good for the business or person. This can be the result of numerous issues. Lack of delegation or confidence in the team because of a past disaster. Lack of role clarification so you don’t have the right people doing the right tasks. Limited planning and communication so team members are in the dark of what is needed so they can’t pitch in to help. Old systems that were relevant when the business started but haven’t evolved as the business has grown. These examples are the tip of the iceberg and it can take a bit of work to unpack all the reasons that are contributing to this problem.
Sign 3: I don’t know where any of the work is at
Especially in SMEs, a significant amount of time is lost by team members running around just trying to keep up with every little bit of information. All this creates is downtime for the people who need to stop the work to explain what has been done and what the next tasks are. I once worked with a team of around 7 staff - it took the foreman a whole hour at the start of each day to go around everyone to get an update on the jobs. A visual team board combined with a 10 minute tool-box or stand up meeting solved all the issues.
Sign 4: We keep missing deadlines and no-one seems to care
This is the combination of many of the issues already described. If you don’t have measures in place that keep everyone accountable to key deliverables e.g. promised dates to customers, it doesn’t surprise me that no-one pays a lot attention to it. A culture of excellence, which does take a lot of time to create, is a step in the right direction. Missed deadlines should piss team off, they should be wanting to figure out why it happened, solve the problems so that it doesn’t happen again.
Sign 5: Everyone seems to be working in silos
When there is a lack of teamwork established it is easy for individuals to turn up, do their job and leave - simple. Yet all these tasks may be completed out of sync, different standards, without the collective focus of the end customer in mind. Having an end to end understanding of the whole business is critical for teams to understand how their job contributes to the overall success of the business. They will learn how their actions might impact (positively and negatively) on other teams up and down the value stream. Fluctuations in performance will result with silos operating within the same organisation. Better understanding of each step, improved communication and planning can all contribute to significant improvements for the team. In addition to this, having a common goal across the team - setting the true north so everyone understands what they are doing and why.
Sign 6: I get told everything is fine, yet customers keep calling me to complain
When there isn’t a positive workplace culture and leaders are managing by fear - the command and control style that should have been lost in the 20th century, teams get well versed at hiding problems. When there is a mistake, work-arounds are created and fast. Paperwork is completed with information that individuals know the boss will want to see rather than the truth. An environment where problem-solving is celebrated and encouraged will change this - creating that positive work culture. Have visual management boards established that will show what is actually happening and leadership trained to support the team to fix issues rather than hide them. Otherwise you can always rely on the customer to provide feedback!
Sign 7: We are busier than ever, growth and turnover is up but I am actually making less money
There is a belief that when work gets out of control, orders or sales start increasing beyond expectations - the solution is more staff, equipment and longer hours. It makes sense of course. Cash Flow is positive, so it is time to invest in a larger team to keep work under control. During this time, little attention is paid to the systems and processes. What worked at the beginning of the year may no longer be the best option or fit for purpose. Looking at the flow of work, analysing the tasks at each step, understanding of the issues as a result of the increased workload - what is a better way to complete the process, do you need to upskill team members, deal with a new bottleneck? The old cliche ‘work smarter not harder’ is a great summary to this issue. Make time to get the team involved in adapting, changing, improving the business. Don’t see this time as a cost - it really is an investment in your future business. It always pays off many times over.
There are many other indications and signs I look out when visiting a new business for the first time. Often the visual work environment will tell me a lot, showing me chaos is alive and well. Occasionally, the business can have an impressive initial impression, everything appearing to be in place. They may have had a previous attempt at Lean or Continuous improvement, but the energy has long faded into the past. But it is what people say that gives me the best indication of the true performance of a business.