What’s your company really worth?

25 years ago, I was writing some software for my father in law. Sometime during the process, my computer locked up and lost a bunch of work. The first time this happens, the experience is seared into your brain. I had to redo a bunch of work. Recoverable, but annoying. The painful process was made a bit worse because it was work I was doing for family.

The cost of lost data

Last week, a client of an acquaintance was struggling thru a ransomware attack. After discussing his options, it sounded like his client’s data is gone, not “just” encrypted. How would the rest of your week go if you found out right now that all of your company’s data is gone?

Think about what “all your data is gone” really means for your company. We’re talking about losing all of your data. Gone.

If you have a staff of people with a shared company calendar with appointments with clients – what would the impact be if the calendar was empty?

You might lose all of your accounting data. Imagine getting your books and taxes in order after a loss like that. While much of that data could be recovered from your bank’s records, you’ll still be missing important details.

Any activity that hasn’t yet created all of its financial transactions wouldn’t appear. The complexities of such transactions make it more difficult to reassemble the pieces, even from a bank statement. Imagine the invoices that don’t go out. Who has paid? Who hasn’t? The same thing affects invoices that come in for payment. Which ones have been paid? Which ones haven’t? Your customers who get invoices they’ve already paid will soon wonder what else you’re struggling with.

You might lose all of your sales and order data. That’d make it tough to calculate commissions, pay vendors, deliver orders and so on. What about your data used or created by manufacturing and shipping applications?

Losing all of your company’s data could be crippling, yet it happens regularly. You don’t often hear about it because no one wants to publicize such situations. It’s the same attitude that makes companies keep data breaches and hacks secret. These losses happen simply because not enough effort is put into making backups AND checking to make sure they work.

What does ransomware do?

Normally a ransomware event results from running a malware application or clicking on a link (or opening an email) that leads to installation of the ransomware. The bad part is that the ransomware encrypts all of your data and you can’t do anything with it unless you pay the ransom. In the case of my acquaintance, the loss was even worse – it didn’t encrypt the data, it erased it.

While ransomware (and charging a ransom) isn’t legal, companies with insufficient security, staff training, and/or inattentive users are victimized by ransomware every day. Few instances are reported because it’s embarrassing.

All it takes is one errant click on a legitimate looking website or email. The next thing you know, every computer on your company network could be encrypted (or just one).

Small price to pay

The company that lost their data had no backups. That’s right. NONE. The last time their data was backed up and stored off-premises 11 months earlier.

Fortunately, this backup was made by their developer or they’d have no backup at all. Ironically, the developer recently offered to setup backups for the client, but the offer was refused. Now he’s working to help them try and recover their data from the backup he made that will probably be the best shot they have to save their company.

If making backups and taking them off-premises sounds like hassle / cost you don’t need, I suggest you consider what your company’s worth. What’s it worth if all the data is gone?

My guess is the difference between those two numbers are worth the time / price of backing up your data. Maybe that’s the price of a monthly online backup service. Maybe it’s the price of an external hard drive or two. Either way, this small investment beats losing all of your business data.

Backup, take your backups offsite, educate your team on how to identify sketchy emails and websites – and help your staff with security software that can intervene to protect your assets. Your company’s worth it.

Do they know they work for an airline?

A recent graduation had both sets of grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle flying from the Midwest into two different airports, converging on Spokane. On the morning of my mother’s flight through Dallas, a thunderstorm with a tornado-like attitude stretched from Austin to Missouri. My mother’s flight to Dallas took a circuitous path around New Orleans, past Houston, into Austin. After an hour in Austin, her flight left for Dallas and landed there too late to allow her to catch her connecting flight to Missoula. A re-route through Seattle changed her arrival in Missoula from 11am to midnight, making a 22 hour travel day. Her baggage was a different story.

We all have baggage

After all that, Mom’s bag didn’t make it to Missoula. Given that her rerouted flight terminated on a different airline & was booked to Kalispell by the original airline (later corrected by Alaska in Seattle), it wasn’t surprising.

I called Alaska baggage in Seattle the next morning. The data said the bag was in Missoula the night before, but that didn’t seem right. Even so, it required a visit to the airport – and that’s where the magic started.

Shawna (an Alaska gate agent) in Missoula took my details & filed a claim. She said the bag was en-route to Kalispell. Shawna sent instructions to return the bag to Seattle on the next flight, then forward it to Spokane since we were heading there to meet the rest of the family. Then Shawna took the first of several unexpected steps. She gave me her direct number in Missoula, telling me she’d be off in a few hours but someone else (whose name I forget) would help me if I called after she left for the day. She also wrote them a note to make sure they checked on the bag. Then she gave me the direct number for her peer in Spokane’s Alaska baggage office and the direct number for the Seattle office, just in case.

Expectations

My expectations were mixed. I’d had re-routed luggage before. Eventually, it finds me. The process is frustrating until the bag arrives. This was different. About noon, my phone rang. Trevor (Alaska baggage) said the bag was en-route to Spokane. He asked if I wanted to pick it up or have it delivered. He took my delivery address and said “Call me if it doesn’t arrive by seven” then he texted me an additional number as a fall back.

About six pm, I received a call from Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. The woman said the bag was out for delivery and would be delivered soon. About 15 minutes later, it arrived.

My bag delivery expectations were met. Despite having flown a good bit, I’ve never lost a bag. Today, a bag’s barcode is scanned so often that it would take odd circumstances to make one disappear without a trace.

My expectations of the people were a different story. I had never experienced such attention to detail and effort to make sure I always had a local phone number and a name to ask for when tracking down a bag. I was never on hold where “my call was important yet they were experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes” repeated incessantly. Instead, my calls were answered in a ring or two & always handled well.

Uncle!

The uncle arrived at midnight on the evening of the arrival of my mom’s bag. He came in on a different airline (not Alaska) but his bag didn’t. He spent much of the next day on hold with his airline’s central baggage office. They didn’t seem to know where his bag was or when it’d arrive. After dinner, I suggested he call Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. What could it hurt? He was skeptical, but called them anyway and, unlike my experience, had to leave a message.

Five minutes later, he received a return call from Alaska baggage. Even though his airline was unsure where his bag was, the woman said she had his bag. He could come pick it up or she would have it delivered. He’d have clean clothes for graduation in the morning.

I don’t know what Alaska does differently, but their people don’t seem to know they work for an airline. Does your team act like they work in your industry, or do they provide service to a higher standard?

PS: the Monday after all this happened, Mom received a discount code for a future flight “for her trouble”.

Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

Pay your future first

Many of the company owners I know are “one person shows”. IE: The owner does it all. Sales, marketing, product development, customer service, finance, toilet cleaning, you name it. Having been there, I know “The Struggle”. Too many things to do, and they never stop coming. How do I automate and free up some time? How do I free up time to do more important work?

It feels to them as if every moment they spend trying to improve the business takes away from the work they need to get done on products, or from sales calls, or from the ever-present demands of customer service. Thing is, those things are infinite in nature.

An infinite agenda

Sales calls will always be on your agenda. Customer support will always demand someone’s time. There will always been a todo list or an agenda of self-replicating tasks like service and sales calls. It’s like swimming in all of the ocean or walking to the horizon… it’s not possible to do them all and never have more. Meanwhile, those things can easily consume a day, a week, or frankly, a lifetime.

Meanwhile, if you let this infinite agenda rule your business life, there are tasks you’ll never get done. That manual monthly task that must be done every third of the month that takes an afternoon still comes back. You have to do it. It pre-empts even sales calls and customer service. There’s probably a way to delegate, outsource, or maybe even automate it. Trouble is, it feels like you’re too busy to take an hour to do that – even though you might never have to do that work again.

The result is the overwhelm and feeling of being trapped. You feel there’s no room for improvement because there’s no time to improve such things. What you’d find is that each small effort to improve these things is what creates room for the next small effort.

Time works a lot like profit

Time works a lot like profit, meaning that if you don’t set some aside at first, you may never have any.

Remember years ago when someone told you to pay yourself first. Even though it’s a simple idea, it may have seemed transformational at the time. Carve off an amount of your take home each month into a separate account before you pay your bills. Even if you start out at $10 a month, it’s only $10, you can figure out how to survive financially without it. Over time, it’ll grow, particularly if you manage to eventually carve out a little more and a little more before paying the bills. You get better at it.

It works just as well for businesses. Carve the profit out first – before you pay anyone else, including yourself. Even if the profit from your operations is tiny and is actually invented by this intentional act in the early days, take it out. You’ll find that your business will find a way to survive without that tiny amount one way or another. As your business improves, you’ll figure out a way to make that number larger.

Oddly enough, the time required to improve your business (working ON it, rather than FOR / IN it) can be carved out exactly the same way. You’ve probably noticed that if you start your day by digging into email, sometimes you’ll “wake up” from digging through and handling email only to find it’s suddenly early afternoon. Email has magically consumed a chunk of your day. You learned through such sessions never to start your day with email, but instead to “pay your todo list first” by doing the most important work first.

Pay the future first, time-wise

You already know this.

That’s why most days you probably try to get the most important item on today’s agenda done first, then you can deal with the rest. No matter how chaotic the rest of the day is, at least you got the single most important thing completed.

Even one day a month, make the most important task that day be an effort to improve the future. Like paying yourself first (or carving off even the tiniest bit of profit first), carve off an hour at the top of your day and do something that will pay dividends for months.

Even if only for an hour this month, pay your future productivity first.

Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

Take Friday off all summer? Crazy like a fox.

As summer approaches, we’re all itching to get out on the river, lake, trail, beach or whatever and take even the briefest vacation day. But, there’s that work thing. And for those who work in the restaurant or hospitality business, few owners even consider taking a day off, much less a Friday. Yet that is exactly what I’m encouraging you to do for the long term health of your business (much less yourself).

Yes, even during tourist season. You can roll your eyes and complain that you can’t leave the business alone on the (perhaps) busiest day of the week, or you can take steps so that you can actually do it without damaging your business. You know you need the vacation time, even if only a day at a time. What’s it take to make these days painless? Read on.

What happened last time?

Think back to the last time you took a vacation day. What went wrong? “Well, so-and-so did this incorrectly, and this customer was mad because we couldn’t do x, y and z – and it was all because I was out fly fishing.

It isn’t because you were gone. It’s because the team wasn’t prepared well enough. Fortunately, you’re in charge of fixing that.

I’m guessing you learned some problem areas the last time you took a vacation day. You probably made some process changes, documented some workflow, made a checklist or two, and maybe trained someone a little better. You might even have discussed among your team how they should (and are expected to) handle different kinds of situations when you’re gone.

If you didn’t do those things, it’s time to start. If you did do them, it’s still worthwhile to review this.

Prepare for next time

Think back to the topics / reasons that caused your team to call or email you while you were out. Document the processes that were involved. Train someone how to do them. Best solution: both documentation and training. Decide who will make decisions in your absence. Discuss that process with your team so they know who the go-to person is.

That go-to person needs a little extra care. First, discuss with them how you make different types of decisions. “I decided this” isn’t as useful to your go-to person as“I decided this, and this is why and how I got there.” Include the information that you gather before making a decision. Describe what your thought process looks like. For now, you want them to make the decision like you would – to the best of their ability, based on how you’ve trained them. To do that, they need these details. Ask them to write down decisions they make while you’re out, so you can discuss what happened &improve upon it.

When you return, assess how it went. If they did well, give them a little more latitude (and training for new areas of decision-making). Repeat the process. You’ll soon know if you chose the right person. If you didn’t, pick someone else. If you chose well, keep at it and have them train someone else in the same manner. Your current “decider” won’t always be around, or might be sick, or on vacation. You don’t want to be completely dependent on one person.

What would happen now?

Again, take Friday off. When you return, adjust, discuss, document, and (re-)train as discussed above. A few weeks later, take two consecutive Fridays off.

What happened? What systems, documented processes, and resources are required to let your team handle what happened and let you actually enjoy those Fridays? Again, adjust, discuss, document and (re-)train.

Soon you’ll know who you can depend on & who needs help. You’ll get a handle on the state of your checklists, process documentation, workflow, and checks &balances. You’ll have stronger People Fu (it’s like Kung Fu, but about knowing your team).

Next… Monday.

Now take Monday AND Friday off. Even if you work those days, your team needs the processes, checklists, decision making thought processes and advice that came out of your previous days off. As a result, they won’t need to interrupt you all day. They’ll know what to do, how to do it, and why you do it the way you do it. You’ll get more of the really important work done. Sure, you can work Monday & Friday if you like, but you don’t have to. Own the business instead of letting it own you.

Photo by Kyle Hanson on Unsplash

Make life easier on sales with time travel marketing

Ever have someone visit your store curious about buying a non-impulse item, get all their questions answered, only to have them turn around and leave without buying? Maybe they’re going out into the parking lot to check the Amazon price. Or maybe they simply drive off. Some might even order from Amazon while standing in your store. Most won’t. Even more mysteriously, the same person will return a few days (or hours) later and buy on the spot without asking a single question. Your sales team wonders what changed. If the buyer made the purchase from a different salesperson than the one who answered their questions, everyone else wonders what magic phrase the salesperson used to close the sale. In reality, they simply took the order and did no selling at all, at least for that person. Why does this happen?

I’m ready now.

Almost all of us have done this. We’re making a sizable and/or important purchase. We’ve done some research, made a few calls, searched a few websites and have more or less made a short list of what might work, what won’t, and why. But… we’re just not ready to pull the trigger. We have a few more questions (salespeople might call them objections) before we make a final decision. We go to the store, but not prepared to buy. We’re prepared to get answers. Two totally different intents.

On the other hand, the store’s sales team is prepared to sell. Sure, they’re prepared to answer questions, but really, they want to close a deal. We enter the store and even if the salesperson answers our questions perfectly, we leave. We say things like “Thanks, but I need to discuss this with my wife / husband / SO / dog / cat / boss, etc.” In some cases that might be true, but really, most need to convince themselves now that they have complete information.

Despite removing all those “Nope, this isn’t the right purchase” objections, they simply haven’t had enough time to sell themselves on the purchase. One of the things we sometimes forget when selling to people is the conversation already going on in their minds. They head to your store (or your website) to get answers, not to buy. At that time, they were not convinced to make the purchase, or at least not that particular purchase. Your staff or sales team answered all their questions and were trying to make the close, yet the person left without buying. You’re left wondering what you did wrong, what your salesperson missed, and maybe wondered if they used the “wrong close”. The salesperson probably did nothing wrong.

Time travel catches us as we think

Have you ever decided to buy a new home, looked for, and purchased one all in the same day? Probably not. You had to think about it, consider your options, weigh alternatives, gather information, and…. think about it even more. It’s no different with that car, rototiller, snowcat, four-wheeler, year of lawn service, or backhoe. This is the customer’s system for selling. It rarely matches up with store’s ideal system for selling (if they have one). Thing is, if you don’t have a system for selling, then you end up dealing with the customer’s system for buying.

People sell themselves to make sure they’re making the right decision. At that point, they’re *ready to buy* and move on. That’s why they often return & buy from the first salesperson who approaches them.

That’s where “time travel” marketing becomes important to the sales process. Marketing that considers the decision making process “goes back in time” from the upcoming visit to the store where you’d be answering questions but not making a sale. Ideally, it arrives in time to become a part of the buyer’s thought process. It answers questions before they get to your store, giving them time to consider their decision. Your materials (and your selling system) must consider the customer’s mindset and the conversation they’re having with themselves about that purchase. Knowing how your prospects make a purchase decision helps you create marketing materials that help people make a decision *before* they get to your store. It’s the same reason why pizza coupons tend to arrive on Thursday or Friday.

PS: Be sure to remind your customers that you can deliver *now*. Amazon can’t provide instant gratification like you can (at least not yet). Once we’ve made a decision, most of us want it now.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

What signals does your business send?

As our body ages & changes, it sends signals. We gain or lose weight. Our appetite changes. Fatigue comes quicker, and sometimes during activities that didn’t cause it in the past. Doing things we’ve always done without difficulty now creates pain, either during or after the activity. Businesses also display symptoms, though I prefer to see them a signals of something that’s changing.

Over the last few months, a business that I’ve frequented for more than a year has started showing signs that it’s having difficulties. Does your business show signs like that? Maybe some examples will help you see what your customers might perceive as signals.

Financial signals

I spend about 12 hours a week at this place. I suspect this is far more than most customers are in your business, so I may notice more than your customers do. Maybe. We all notice different things at different rates. My wife tells me my sense of smell isn’t very well developed, for example.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen signs of financial stress when visiting this business. Many of them have been maintenance related. For example, the only two water fountains in the building have broken twice in the first year they were open. The first time, it took almost a month to repair them. The second time, it took a day. They’re adjacent to each other and fail at the same time, interestingly. One of the men’s toilets has been disconnected from the wall of the bathroom for months. It still works, but there’s an almost inch wide gap between the back of the tank-less fixture and the wall.

Paper towels & toilet paper are present some days & scarce on others. The staff often has to be told that TP is empty. Paper towels are replaced by cloth towels. These towels are used to wipe down sweaty workout machines, so cloth towels that remain out in the facility for reuse aren’t a good solution. These things send messages to customers. Some notice, some don’t. Some care, some don’t. Do you ask your customers if they see any maintenance issues that you might have missed? Familiarity makes some of these things harder to see.

Management signals

If expectations haven’t been set for attention to details and follow up on repairs, these signals could be the result. However, this might also be a case of weak or absentee management. Sometimes, there’s one staffer. Other times, five or six, at the same time of day on different weekdays. While it feels like inattention, it could be the result of using staffing-level management tools used by major retailers. They tell you how many people to have in the store based on same day, prior year foot traffic/sales, etc.

Currently, one of the 16 televisions on the walls has been displaying the same still image for the last two weeks. It’s not unusual to find trash littering the floor in public areas. This business is a locally owned franchise. I’d never seen a manager around, so sometime last year I asked the national company about the broken water fountains that had been down for several weeks. They suggested I ask the local manager. Amazing that I hadn’t thought of that, right? The water fountains were broken again this week.

I hadn’t discussed the issue with a manager only because I wasn’t sure who it was – despite visiting this facility almost daily for a year. There’s no indication of who the manager is (by name, sign, uniform, badge, etc) or how to contact them. All the folks working the facility and the front counter seem to share the same responsibilities. The obvious solution was to finally get around to asking who the manager is and when they were on site. Does your company make it easy to identify on-site management?

Is your business sending signals?

The business used in the example isn’t the point. In your case, the signals could be that you never have parts in stock, or that your team is untrained (or under trained).

A couple of times a day, you might ask your customers if they notice anything that needs attention. That’s vague enough that it won’t taint their response and it gives them plenty of leeway to mention a top of mind situation. Take the responses as a gift – as most feedback of this nature is exactly that.

Photo by Xipu Li on Unsplash

Thinking about your thinking

Last week, we discussed single points of failure, noting that eliminating them from critical systems is a management responsibility. How managers think about critical systems (and everything else) directly impacts outcomes. It isn’t about being more sophisticated or smarter than others. It’s often as simple as asking a question that no one else has the nerve to ask, like “What (else) can go wrong?“. The TV station issue discussed last week re: the NCAA broadcast might have been avoided if someone had asked “What happens if our primary internet connection goes down during a critical broadcast?

The problem isn’t the problem. The problem is how you’re thinking about the problem.” – Dan Sullivan

Thinking “What can go wrong?”

It’s impossible to eliminate every threat to your infrastructure, systems, processes, supply chain, people, facilities, etc. It’s obvious to think about infrastructure (water, power, internet, health care, food, transportation). Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes will quickly divert your thoughts to infrastructure.

What if we can’t ship our products for three weeks?” or “What if we can’t get (normally JIT-shipped) raw material for two weeks?” seem like ridiculous questions until mudslides or avalanches wipe out your shipper’s critical rail route, or spring floods destroy critical roads / bridges near you.

Ask “What else can go wrong?” & “What can go wrong with things out of our control?” Prioritize these risks & start toward eliminating or minimizing the most important / likely ones. What workaround processes will you need if mitigation plans missed something? Should you should document these plans? (Yes) Should you rehearse the workarounds?

How has the business changed?

Asking how things have changed can alter your thinking.

20 years ago, a Fortune 500 company might’ve had 20, 200, or 2000 locations. Today, they might have 20-50% fewer locations. Those locations might be larger, smaller, in more/fewer countries. Management at those companies are used to those changes. What’s different from 30 years ago (much less 10) is the potential added complexity of having thousands of remote workers across the globe. For that population, connectivity and power are still critical, and the risk is better distributed. Damage to a single facility shouldn’t sideline thousands of remote workers as it once would have.

Our customers, products, services, facilities, and people change all the time. While the pace and nature of this change varies, it happens to all of us. Our mindset and our history is a big part of it. When it comes to thinking about how our company has changed, our mindset and worldview about our past is a huge influence.

The best advice I’ve ever gotten about this is: “Look at your (and your company’s) past, decide what you want to take into the future, and forget the rest.” That doesn’t mean you forget the lessons or the history. It simply means you don’t let them come along as baggage that weighs down your thinking.

What are we assuming?

When doing a review of a “disaster” (whatever that means for you), it’s pretty easy to see the mistakes that cascaded into disaster. Imagine the value of seeing these mistakes in advance. By default, we make assumptions. Lots of them.

When driving from Billings to Cheyenne in the winter, we know to top off in Sheridan or Casper (or both) because we can’t assume that the drive will be uneventful. Running out of fuel because you had to sit still with the car running for four hours at -10F can be a life-threatening oversight. An assumption like “We have enough fuel” could be your last if things don’t go smoothly.

What conditions, supplies, staffing do we assume will be in place? If your top three salespeople get an ugly case of stomach flu the night before the biggest trade show of the year, what’s tomorrow look like? While unlikely, you need a plan.

If boxes of materials don’t show up at the show, you usually find out the day before the show. Even if the show staff finds them, it might take a couple days. By then, the show will be over. What’s your plan? Do your people have the info / means to find substitutes on a Sunday afternoon in a city they aren’t familiar with?

What did we ignore / forget?

Is maintenance up to date? Is the condition of equipment, people, vehicles, etc what we think? Dashboards and checklists save us from simple oversights / mistakes that can cascade into something you’d rather avoid.

Blame for failure is irrelevant

After a long week of travel, I returned home today to learn that a fair number of people didn’t get to see their favorite (or “new favorite”) team play for a Final Four spot on Sunday. Apparently there were some communication issues that prevented some local stations from receiving the feed of the game. A sports reporter for one of these stations blamed their internet provider for the downtime. They indicated that their control system connects through a remote link (whose doesn’t?) and the internet connection between them and the system was down. Thus, it was the internet company’s fault, right?

Symptoms of failure

Without that connection, we don’t get anything to air“, the reporter noted.

That seems like it might be a problem. What could we do so that this type of failure never happens again?

As described, a single connection to a remote location is the dependency for a major network television affiliate’s network content. The ability to deliver content created by the network – something they likely depend on for about 20 of their 24 of airtime each day – depends on a single internet connection.

Most of the time, the ability to access the parent network’s television content is not critical path functionality to a community – even though it’s likely considered critical functionality by the station. If the connection goes down, maybe they have recordings or cached programming they can play. However, there are times when live content could be critical in a life or death situation. This station is located in a part of the Midwest that is subject to tornadoes. Perhaps they have their own technology (radar, etc), content, and experts for those critical situations.

Bottom line, the station has a critical system with a single point of failure.

This isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of the real problem: management.

A management problem

While TV coverage of a ballgame isn’t a problem on the scale of the situation with the 737 MAX, the station’s viewers are likely unhappy about the outage. If your sports bar pays that TV station (and their network) a big check so that you can show their content, you might also be upset. In the latter case, you also have a management problem if you only have one source of sports content in an environment that depends on sports. You get the idea.

I’m guessing most TV stations have generators to keep things running during power outages. How many have redundant internet connections from different suppliers? Even if you can’t afford a full-time redundant connection, you can schedule access via a second provider during periods when losing your feed could create massive problems. Not foreseeing possible connection issues at the worst possible time is more a failure of imagination than anything.

The management problem is allowing any critical system to have a single point of failure.

You’re the cure

A single point of failure may not as bad as losing electricity or internet connectivity. It could be people-related as noted during last week’s brain drain discussion. To summarize, if you don’t have checklists, documented systems, and well-defined processes, you could have a single point of failure when you lose an employee. If their work is critical path, your business risks temporarily losing the ability to take care of its commitments.

This is particularly critical for a working owner. If they do work that no one else at the company can do, they’re a possible single point of failure. At risk: The company and the personal economies of every employee family. What if the owner has a stroke or gets hit by someone who ran a red light? The company’s future is probably altered forever.

The work of avoiding such failures must be done in advance. It takes vision and imagination.

The situation is most dire when this owner happens to run the town’s biggest employer. The economy of the entire town could be crippled overnight. A lot of employee families could be placed in a terribly challenging situation – the kind of thing that cascades across a town’s economy.

Despite this risk, I don’t believe a town (or a state) should “guarantee” a company’s success. It’s the duty, obligation, & responsibility of the town & its people to avoid getting into a single point of failure situation. Once a town’s economy is destroyed, neither blame nor a legislature can fix it or the financial situations of her residents.

Photo by David Kovalenko on Unsplash

Knowledge loss – The pain of brain drain

I had a conversation about “brain drain” with an old friend this week. “Brain drain” is the loss of business-specific and/or industry-specific knowledge suffered due to employee attrition. When experienced people leave a company, they take their brains with them – including all their knowledge and experience. Losing specialized knowledge can be painful even when someone isn’t moving to a competitor or starting a competitive firm.

My friend’s customers tend to be large, with thousands of employees. He has a tool for collecting data about the workflow, business structures, and processes in these organizations. The data becomes a logical representation of the business – a model. That model (database) describes the company’s jobs, work, roles, “work products”, etc. It’ll eventually help you identify connections between those components of the company. Collecting the data is a significant effort, but this is understandable. Large, complex organizations are extremely difficult to fix, much less keep running on their own. Having a reference for what the company does, how it does those things, and how it communicates is essential. A model or reference allows you to create consistency. It identifies the systems and tools will help the company improve their performance. It serves as a lens that brings the company’s inner machinery into focus. The effort and payoff both grow as the organization size increases. This effort (and it’s price) also mean it’s something a small business would almost never do. 

Small business brain drain – a foregone conclusion?

Brain drain can create nightmares for small businesses as well, but you don’t need massive processes and expensive tools to tackle it. How do you protect yourself from this? Use the same type of process, without the expense.

Identify the roles your team has. In a small business, people tend to wear multiple hats. Each one of those is a role. If you’re small, you might have someone who fills five roles during their work week. What skills and training will a future new hire need to successfully perform this role? What processes and tools will be involved? Is experience and/or training required? Someday you might be big enough to make that role require a full time person. For the processes they must perform in that role, is there a checklist? Is there a form?

Experience hides

Lots of knowledge is buried in undocumented business processes & related timelines. When finally documented, you’ll find innate knowledge that’s been seared into the team from unknown people or situations. There will be “we do it this way but I don’t recall why”. You’ll learn about long-held (possibly valid) assumptions passed down among team members that no one’s documented. Information hides inside experienced people who for years have done their job, refined processes, and trained a new co-workers. Many lessons go undocumented, despite being learned over many years of work. They came from the impact of many small refinements over time, thanks to lessons they learned along the way. This “what and how but not why” is unintentionally hidden from management, carefully sequestered in unwritten job descriptions.

We hide this knowledge in forms and their workflow. It hides in unwritten, but known expectations, and in undocumented metrics that someone here probably understands. Sometimes there’s data available, sometimes there isn’t. Some of this data is never used because we didn’t have the time, tools, or desire to learn from it. Much of this data is documentation of what we and our team members do every day.

Once you identify each role, follow the paper trail in your business. It’ll tell a story. Follow the data. Ask why of your data, your forms, your processes, and your people. Document the answers, the reasons, the surprises, and the gaps. This information has real value, so keep it up to date.

What the hurt looks like

If an experienced team member retires, quits, spends a week in the hospital, or takes a leave to care for a family member this month, how will you…

  • Get their work done.
  • Recover the knowledge of what they did and knew not to do.
  • Meet the deadlines they own.
  • Maintain their contacts/relationships inside/outside the company.
  • Deal with vendors & internal/external customers who are suddenly not being attended to / hassled appropriately / held accountable / cared for / paid / billed, etc.

Someone will leave sooner than you expect or hope. Get ready.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

The power of delegating

How much of what your company does absolutely MUST be done by you? How many hours a week do you spend doing those things? What if you could do 10-20 more hours of that per month. After a few months, what if you refined that new ability three or four times? Think hard about that. At that point, you would be able to spend 10-20 hours more per week on the things you and only you must do. How would that change your business? For that matter, how would it change your life? I learned this magic from a mentor who is pretty demanding about getting people to work on the things they’re best at – and nothing else. While not everyone can do that much delegating right off the bat, this process still leaves plenty of opportunity to gain valuable time to do the work no one else can do. 

Choose someone else

Perfecting the art of delegation (or at least refining it) is something that takes time. Identifying everything you do that can be done by others… doesn’t. If that seems tough, just identify the few things you do that no one, absolutely no one, can do for you. Now it’s easy: delegate everything else.

Yep, that simple. Start with the easy stuff.

Say you want to send flowers to your mom for her birthday. You can call the florist in the town where she lives and work it out with them. Maybe you prefer to call 1-800 whatever, or a local florist and ask them to make it happen. Or you can do none of that – and delegate the task to someone with as much or little detail as you like. Your mom doesn’t care that you didn’t make the phone call. She’s happy you remembered her and thought enough to send flowers.

You might be thinking “that was only 10 minutes on the phone”. Or 15. Or 20. Plus following up, if needed. Whatever. The time for this one task isn’t all that relevant. Look at the big picture and add them up. The point isn’t how much this one task takes. It’s about how many tasks like this are consuming your time each month.

Turn it up, by turning it around

Once you start getting into the groove of delegating, it’ll get easier over time. Thing is, there’s a way to completely rethink the process and realign how you look at new projects. When a new task or project pops up, think first about who else (ie: not you) can do the work – unless the work is on that (probably) short list of things that only you can do. Who else can manage it? Plan it? Track it? Lots of people, right? Let someone else do those things. They’re important, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t do them. You focus on the portion of the project that’s work for you – and nothing else.

Multiplying the impact

Want to take this a bit further and multiply the impact? Start teaching it to your managers and skilled team members who get distracted / side-tracked by work that someone else could do.

You might be wondering “If everyone is delegating this work, won’t that require more people?” Yes, it might.

Thing is, if your managers and highly-skilled team members are doing enough of this work that it requires one or more people to complete it, that’s a problem. It means that your managers aren’t spending all of their time managing (hard to imagine, right?) Instead, they’re doing work that someone else can do. It also means your highly-skilled team members are spending an inordinate amount of time on things that other team members can do.

For managers, the problem is that when people, projects, relationships, and product delivery isn’t managed well, the entire company is affected. In the case of highly-skilled team members, we’re talking about high value, high cost, high return on investment work. Any time your highly-skilled team members are spending time on other tasks, they’re getting more expensive by the minute. Worse yet, they become more expensive when they spend time on random tasks that have nothing to do with their skill. Removing any non-core task from these folks increases their value and allows them to contribute more to the company’s bottom line. In some cases, this newly found time opens up sales opportunities because these folks can produce more of the thing you hired them to do.

Photo by Sayan Nath on Unsplash