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Employee Training Employees Leadership Management Productivity systems

A well-armed minutiae: Urgent, not important.

Yes, I said “minutiae”, not “militia”. The similarity and power of these two words struck me, so I thought I’d substitute one for the other. One of the most dangerous things in your (and your team’s) day to day productivity is the “crisis of the unimportant”. IE: tasks that seem important only because someone interrupted you with them. Minutiae are the little things that, left uncontrolled, will consume your day and leave it unfulfilling, perhaps annoying and almost certainly empty of substantive accomplishments. Stephen Covey spent his career preaching about preventing these tasks from consuming your day – categorizing them as “urgent, not important”.

Eliminate minutiae with systems

As the owner or a senior manager, it’s critical to get out of the “interrupt me early and often” mode as soon as you can – but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the needs of those who interrupt you. You simply need to find a way to deal with them and set boundaries for them. A system helps.

Back in the days of Photo One, photography studio owners asked me to solve this problem for them. To the studio shooter, the most valuable revenue-creation time was in the camera room – ie: behind the camera time with the client in a room full of props, lights and other tools of the studio photographer. When they’re in that room with a client, the value they’re creating can create revenue for years, so the last thing they want to happen once they have “warmed up” the subject is to have the rapport / groove interrupted by someone asking where the coffee filters are, or how to process a refund for a charge split across two cards, or similar.

One answer to this is a system that provides answers to “interruption questions”. A studio owner told me that they had an answer / procedures book to deal with this, but they didn’t like the maintenance headache that it caused. This book predated Google docs and wikis, so they edited everything in Microsoft Word (or similar) and then printed the answers / procedures and put them in a three-ring binder.

The process established in the studio was to consult the book if you didn’t know the answer, then ask your manager and only then could the shooter in the camera room be interrupted. That interruption was OK only if it couldn’t wait until the camera room appointment was over. Obviously, this becomes a training issue at first so that the proper habits are established. Beyond that point, the book should get updated with one-off requests quickly so that camera room interruptions fall off quickly.

Make sure your minutiae cure is scalable

The studio owner came to me because they had a big studio and one book wasn’t enough. They needed multiple copies, but managing all the changes was a chore. Since most of the users were lusing Photo One all day, it made perfect sense to include the equivalent of “the answer book” within our software. That allowed anyone to get to it, plus the answer book functionality in the software allowed them to print a copy of the book so there were always printed copies available.

Resources like this can provide answers to questions, as well as step by step checklists or processes that allow the owner and managers to get things done the way they want, even if they aren’t available. One memorable example was “How to arm the alarm at end of day”. Do this wrong and you have no security or incorrect security. Do it right and the owner / manager gets some slack and the employee builds confidence in their ability to close the shop for the day.

A wiki, a FAQ, anything

These days, a custom desktop software feature like that really isn’t necessary because it’s so easy to build something like this into the private side of your company’s website as an internal wiki or frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) page. These assets are valuable not only for managers and your subject matter experts (SME) who get interrupted by such questions, but also for new employees or temps who come into your shop and need a resource other than “Ask Jennifer” umpteen times per week.

The last time I started getting overwhelmed by these things, I started writing down the context of the interruptions. That allowed me to see trends, identify what needed to be documented and get out of interruptionville.

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Employee Training Employees Management Setting Expectations Small Business The Slight Edge

Which little things do you let slide?

We often let little things go because we have “bigger fish to fry”. We prioritize tasks, clients, products and services over others of the same sort because we have to. Prioritization of what’s important today over what might be important tomorrow, or even later today is perfectly normal. We have to do it.

The challenge with little things is that they add up, particularly when they’re repeatedly set aside. They have a way of ganging up and creating momentum, as if they were a colony of ants. Together, a colony can move things much larger than any single ant.

We cannot allow any error in judgment to delude us into thinking that ‘letting the little thing slide’ would not make a major difference.” – Jim Rohn

What little things?

What sort of little things come to mind for you as important for your business?

For me, the little things that matter are those things that tell me what the business thinks is important. Every business says the customer is important, but how do they prove it? Do their words match their actions? Little things are a great place to sort this out.

Little things explicitly communicate what’s important to the owners of the business. They tell me about the culture of the business and paint a picture of what’s important to the business’ management team. These things indicate how hard the ownership and management has thought about what their customers need, want and expect.

Their consideration of and emphasis placed on these things is reflected in the staff’s behavior. Their behavior is an indicator of the quality of management. It signals management’s emphasis during staff training, as well as the quality and frequency of that training. All of this points at the importance placed on serving their clients’ needs, wants and expectations.

Think about the curb appeal of a house. Consider your impression when stopping in front of a home with a weedy, un-mowed yard. Now think about the impression you have when viewing a nicely manicured one. What does that tell you about the upkeep, maintenance and care taken for the rest of each home? Your impression might be wrong – but changing that impression is tough. A business with poor “curb appeal” may never get a chance to improve the impression they’ve left.

That’s exactly what little things can do. They have a knack for sending a big message to your clients.

Prioritization by impact

Big things matter. If you think back over your career, I’m sure you can think of a number of big issues that started out as little things that were left to fester. But which ones? It’s critical to separate the little unimportant things from the little things that can fester into big ones. And how exactly do you do that? One of the most important prioritization skills you can develop is the ability to determine which of these little things are unimportant and which need to be dealt with before they create big problems.

I tend to look at the impact, rather than the size.

If something small is likely to impact a number of people, it won’t be small for long. That’s the kind of little thing that requires short term attention. Little things to you, your team and your business might be big things to your clientele, which speaks to your awareness of client needs, wants and expectations.

If something small isn’t communicated, it can become something big simply by not letting your clients know about it – and know that you’re aware of it. Even if you believe it’s a little thing, communicate anyway. This gives the client a chance to say “Thanks, no problem” or “Hey, it’s not a big deal in and of itself, but it’s going to create another problem that causes a big impact.” The incremental cost of that brief advisory to the client is tiny. The return on investment on that communication can be sizable if it helps keep a small issue from morphing into something ugly.

If you only identify one of these situations per year and it results in keeping a client you might have lost, the return on investment is obvious. If you retain one sale a month by categorizing these little things and taking action on the important ones, the return on investment is obvious.

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customer retention Employee Training Management Small Business systems

Train them to make it easy to buy

Last week, we discussed the importance of training your employees to use systems well beyond the cash register, including those strategic to the company. While a normal cash register transaction is a typical customer interaction for a retail or service business, there are always the random circumstance that isn’t part of the “poke a few buttons, swipe their card or give them their change” process. In those situations, do you make it easy to buy?

What happens if you’re out of stock? This past weekend, my wife and I had an encounter with a young, polite employee of a national U.S. corporation who was dealing with an out of stock issue. The out of stock item could have been a simple logical issue rather than a physical one. Had the employee been properly trained and provided with the right systems, she would have be trained to “make it work” (hat tip to Tim Gunn), take our money and be resourceful. It didn’t turn out that way, but that’s not her fault. It’s management’s responsibility to make sure she has the systems and training to handle situations like this.

When easy to buy is out of stock

I suggest you put some thought (and some action) into training your people to make it work, rather than to say no and refuse a client’s money – where it makes sense. When it isn’t possible to make it work, your team’s training and systems should be ready to take over.

Think about what happens when an item is out of stock.

  • Do you place the item on backorder?
  • Do you have notification systems in place for your team so that they know when the out of stock item is back in stock?
  • Do you have notification systems in place for your clients so they they know the out of stock item has arrived so it can be scheduled for delivery or pickup?
  • Is your staff trained to handle an out of stock situation in a way that preserves the sale, preserves the client relationship or creates a positive memory for the customer?

Assuming you have all of that in place, what happens in the meantime?

The interim

In the meantime? In other words, even if you have out of stock situations handled well and have systems and training in place to deal with them, what specifically happens from the moment the out of stock situation is detected to the moment it is resolved? This can be seconds, minutes or months.

While the purchase was meaningless, so are many day to day purchases by your clients. The transaction may mean little in the big picture / long term, what matters is how it is handled. This situation illustrates how easily and inexpensively you can turn a failed transaction into one that people will share with their friends.

Over New Year’s, I took the family to see Star Wars. It was our first movie of 2016. The theater near us has an annual bucket program that works like this: You spend $20 on one of these buckets, which gets you popcorn today and the ability to refill the bucket for $4 for the rest of the year. In case you haven’t been to a movie lately, a large popcorn and two drinks will easily cost $20 these days, so the $4 refill for each movie is a nice savings.

Yet on January 1st, they were out of 2016 buckets. While this indicates broken inventory control, that isn’t the point. The concession stand employee said “We just ran out.” When asked if there was a way to get a rain check or pay for the bucket and take a disposable container for now, she looked baffled. Had management trained her well, she would have had a clipboard at the register, could have charged us for the annual bucket, taken our name and number (or email, whatever), given us a bag of popcorn and moved on. A 20 cent solution to retain a $20 sale for a recurring client.

Trivial but still important

Trivial, but these things that happen to your clientele every single day. How are you training your team to handle them? What systems are in place to deal with issues like this, even if the solutions are as simple as a clipboard?

Word of mouth comes from handling these things gracefully and without disruption. Prepare your team to make it easy to buy.

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Business Resources Employee Training Employees goals Improvement Leadership Small Business Strategic Notepad

Leading your team to goal setting

Last week, I suggested that you communicate company goals to each team member so that your company-wide goals have context for them in their daily work and with their department’s goals. That’s only part of the job when working with team members and goal setting. The other part is making sure they have a process for identifying what they want to accomplish and how they will break it down and knock off the steps required to make departmental and personal goals happen.

Goal setting training?

You might be looking at that last paragraph and wondering how it is possible that anyone on your team doesn’t already have a process they’re happy with for goal setting. Have you asked them what process they use for identifying, prioritizing and achieving goals? For a business owner, this may not seem possible, but business owners usually have a different worldview, mindset, background (and so on) from at least some of their staff.

To shine a light on that thought: In all the companies I’ve worked for and with since I started post-collegiate work in the early ’80s, not one offered (much less required) goal setting training of any kind to help employees or teams with this critical responsibility.

NOT ONE. How is this possible?

Even if your team members have a goal setting / achievement process they are happy with, do you know how it fits with the process your company uses? What if yours is better? How will learning yours impact their work and life? What if THEIRS is better? How would that change the lives of the entire team and the future of the company?

Yes, training.

The same way that it’s possible for companies to forget to train their people on project management, process management, product management, etc. The assumption at companies that don’t do this may be that “We hired an experienced person, so we expect you to know this.”

That’s great, but if the experienced hire hasn’t been trained, or uses a sloppy, misguided or incomplete method – who pays for that? Even if the method is good, but it’s incompatible with your company’s process, it’s worth discussing.

Are these things a part of your employee on-boarding? Are you showing them where the health insurance forms are and how to file expense reports, but failing to provide them with information (and training) on the company’s preferred goal setting process? Are you spending any time acclimating them to how project management is done at the company?

Are they being trained on the systems and tools your company uses to communicate, manage projects, collect and review feedback, store ideas, plan projects and identify goals? If not, how will they thrive in your system?

People systems are as important as other systems

It’s all too easy to see a need in a company, hire for it, plug someone into a position and turn them loose like a replaceable part. You may feel that your front line people can be handled that way since they aren’t viewed as a strategic hire. I suggest that they are because they are customer-facing, but it’s more than that and goes back to our discussions last week where giving context to company goals is critical to achieving them.

When you take that concept of giving your team context to company goals and apply it to the systems across your entire company, even the front line staffer needs to know your systems and the importance of using them. How else will they determine and achieve their goals? How else will they know the importance of passing along client feedback, much less how to do it?

One of management’s responsibilities is to see that the staff has the systems and training to handle everyday situations. You train them to run the register, but it shouldn’t end there. What are you doing to prepare them to become of strategic value to your company? We see stories on a regular basis where someone started at an entry level position at a large company and somehow managed to end up as the company’s CEO (or as the company’s owner). These things don’t happen by accident.

How you prepare someone to become an integral part of your success is more important as any other training you provide. Train, mentor and guide them – even if you don’t plan for them to become CEO.

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Employee Training Improvement Leadership Management Small Business Strategic Notepad strategic planning

Is your New Year planning done?

New Year planning for your business is often a mechanical process involving adding x% to various budgets and reducing others or leaving them the same. While financial planning is important, be sure to invest some time at a deeper level so that next year isn’t simply a repeat of this year with a different calendar.

Even if this year has been your best year to date, there’s always room for improvement. In fact, the year after your best year often requires even more focused effort to maintain your current pace. On the other hand, if this year wasn’t so great or was “simply OK”, then these discussions will be in context to turn things around.

Here are some questions to consider for your New Year planning…

Strength Training and Leverage

Who isn’t getting the training they need? What parts of the company would likely produce improved performance after receiving additional training to leverage their strengths? What sort of training is required? For whom? This review should involve everyone in every department, from the owner to the newest employee.

While training can go a long way toward dealing with strengths that need reinforcement, the real solution is often found by delegating certain work to other people. Fighting someone’s weaknesses is usually a waste of time, talent and money. Can they be overcome? Perhaps. Is it worth it? It depends on experience and whether or not the questioned work is the person’s real gift.

You might be tempted to think “They run the cash register. How is that a gift?

The register isn’t the point. The people at your register, at your receptionist desk, on your support lines, taking inbound calls… they’re the people who make the first impression at your company. They’re great at public facing work, or they aren’t. Some will grow into it. Some never will, but may excel at other things. In the meantime, every new prospect and client interacts with these folks. Wouldn’t you prefer they interacted with someone who rocks that register, receptionist desk, or inbound call?

Ever had a great experience at a hardware store cash register? Ever had a bad one? Ever called in or met a receptionist who was a company’s best asset or worst first impression? How are these things going at your place?

Assess Leadership

Over the last year, you can probably name the high and low points from a leadership perspective. This includes owners, managers and team members. Last week I talked about the comfort you feel when you know someone has your back. A good bit of this is driven by leadership and example setting.

For every leader on your team, consider what would help them grow as a leader in the coming year. What can you do to help? What about everyone else? Have you and your managers taken the time to identify staffers who show potential as leaders? What process will be used to do that?

If you’re a team member and you want to lead, two things: Continue leading by example and be sure to let your manager know that you want help becoming a better leader. Assuming they can read your mind isn’t a great plan for your future.

Communication

As with leadership, you can probably identify the highs and lows communications-wise over the last year, both with your clientele and your team. What’s your plan to learn from them, train based on what you learned, reproduce the wins and address the less than ideal?

Is there anyone on your team who needs communications training? Do you cringe when you read emails from some people? Does anyone on your team struggle to get their point across verbally? What can you do as an owner to help them?

If you’re the one having difficulty communicating, who can you ask for help / suggestions? Again, don’t assume anyone will come to your rescue. Take initiative. The ability to communicate effectively is a big differentiator for you and your company.

New Year planning and individual goals

All of the things we’ve discussed above relate to individual goals. Either you want to improve or you want your direct reports to improve, or both. What have you done to communicate the company’s goals for the coming year? What about your departments? What about your personal ones?

It’s time to have these conversations.

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Automation customer retention Employee Training Improvement Productivity service Setting Expectations Small Business systems Technology

Filling cracks with automation and metrics

How many emails did you send last Tuesday? How many phone calls did you make last Thursday? How many things fell through the cracks last week or last month?

The first two are trivia until you start thinking about the time they consume compared to the return they produce.

The last one is the big one: tasks that fall in cracks, meaning you forgot to do something, or have someone else do something – like make a call to close a sale or follow up on a lead.

I’m guessing you have no idea how many things disappeared into cracks last week unless they’ve cost you business since that time. If they didn’t have a cost, does it matter? I think it does, but not for the reason you might think.

Metrics are lonely fellas

Metrics are great, until they aren’t. Their failing? Metrics tell you what happened and in some cases, what is happening, but they don’t tell you what to do next. By themselves, metrics can get lonely.

Automation can cure that by either telling you act on what’s happened (or is happening), or by doing it on your behalf with your advance permission.

You need to get metrics hitched up with automation, but not solely to get your metrics delivered regularly. While that’s certainly a very good idea, there’s more to the marriage of metrics and automation than prompt and consistent delivery.

There’s curing that crack problem.

Preventing cracks is better than fixing them

If you drive a diesel pickup, particularly one that’s chipped, tuned and so forth – you know what I mean. If you’re a tuner, you probably have an Edge or similar device monitoring exhaust temperatures and other engine information.

Those are metrics.

If you have an Edge or similar, you may even have it setup to tune your engine’s “brain” as engine metrics signal a need for something different.

The tuned diesel truck owner uses tools like this to prevent engine rebuilds while getting the best possible performance out of their truck. In a similar fashion, stock traders use automation to sell stocks when they hit stop loss points because they want to prevent portfolio rebuilds while getting the best possible performance from their investments.

Create a crack prevention system

Metric driven automation like that used by the stock trader and the tuned diesel owner can likewise keep our business fine tuned simply by making sure we’re aware of things that need to get done on a daily basis.

Simple but effective methods include making appointments for yourself and keeping reminder-enabled todo lists in your phone. Obvious? Sure, but they can be all but life saving when chaos finds its way into your week.

I use a few simple online tools to keep track of my work, but I’m always on a quest to find a way for them to nag me more intelligently. These tools help me remain responsible by making sure I get the right things done at the right time.

For example, after seven years, my Flathead Beacon editor knows he’s going to get this column from me every week, even if isn’t there on deadline day (five days before press day). When he gets to his desk on Monday (press day), he knows it’ll be there and it won’t require editing, except for rare occasions when my headline is a bit over the top.

Occasionally, 11pm Sunday arrives and the column isn’t finished. I have a reminder on my phone to tell me to get up 90 minutes early on Monday (ouch, right?) so I can get it published on time, allowing him to meet his commitments.

Here’s the crack prevention: Automation helps me meet my commitment, no matter how hectic life gets, no matter where I am. If the automation was fully data-driven, the reminder would only occur on Sundays when my column hasn’t yet been posted. Some situations will demand that level of data-driven automation. You don’t have to cut it as close as 11pm on the night before. Getting up 90 minutes early on Monday is my self-inflicted punishment / motivation not to let that happen.

Together, automation and metrics allow you to become more dependable as your business / volume grows, while still remaining independent. Don’t forget to show your team how to use automation to improve their performance.

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Business culture Customer service Employee Training Leadership Management Setting Expectations Small Business The Slight Edge

The magic triangle of small business

Take a look at any reality show business turnaround and the story is always the same: Quality, customer service, management.

It’s the magic triangle of small business, much less the formulaic basis of most business turnaround reality shows.

What’s a bit stunning is that people actually wait around for the reality show hero and their crew to show up before they take action to clean up the mess they’ve made – and even then, it’s orchestrated by the show. Sure, there’s some money and some not-so-good publicity involved, but most of the time, they’d be ahead financially and publicity-wise if they simply took care of business without waiting for the show people to arrive.

Think about what these people would do if they showed up at your business tomorrow.

They’d taste your food or try your product or service. They’d see how clean the place is. They’d monitor your service. They’d look at your books. They’d ride around with your delivery rigs.

Yes, these are the same things you should be doing in one way or another.

Management

Sometimes other things find their way into the success equation of a good small business, but they’re almost always rooted in the magic triangle. Some of these things are a part of management.

For example:

  • Cleanliness… is management.
  • Hiring…. is management.
  • Knowing your numbers…is management.
  • Knowing who your clientele is, and isn’t…is both management and marketing.
  • Focusing your marketing and client care on exactly the right people…is management.
  • Being focused on the quality of what you produce and sell is management, as is how you deliver it.

Quality

Think about the things you’ve seen in other businesses that made you angry, disappointed or made you wonder “Who’s running this place?” Consider the service you’ve complained about.

Is any of that happening at your business? How do you know? Have you called the last several customers you lost? Are you even aware who they are?

What about the last few new customers? Do you know who they are?

If you don’t know the last few you lost or the last few you got, it’s tough to check in with them and ask how things went. If you can’t do that, you’re probably guessing or assuming how things are going.

Is there a TV truck out front yet?

The phone

Think about the last time you were served well over the phone. Or about the last time you had a terrible phone experience with a business. Remember how you felt? Remember the “I’ll never use this business again” thought process – or something like it.

Now, with that thought cemented in your mind – are you sure that your business isn’t having those same kinds of issues with customer calls? Are you positive?

Have you called your business lately as a customer? Have you talked to anyone who has? If the answer to both questions is no, how do you know that your clients are being properly cared for by phone?

Try calling your accounting department and asking a question about an old invoice. Once the conversation is done, ask them to send you a copy of the invoice.  Do they refuse? Does the copy ever show up? These are the kinds of things that set customers off on a daily basis.

Call your sales and service departments as well. How does that go? Try being a “good customer” as well as a “bad” one. How does the experience change? Are they following your training? Speaking of, are they being trained?

Onboarding

What’s your new customer “onboarding” process like? Is it consistent? Does it set expectations for how things will go after that? Do you train them how to do business with you?

What’s your process like? Think about the process that other businesses have put you through, or used to welcome you into their “family”.

Which do you prefer? Yours, or theirs? If you prefer the ones you’ve experienced elsewhere, is there a reason why you haven’t adopted parts of their process and made them your own?

Pay attention to the magic triangle and everything that it touches. Don’t wait for the TV truck to pull up – it may not arrive soon enough.

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Business culture Customer relationships Customer service Employee Training Employees Leadership service Setting Expectations Small Business

Earning return business, part two

Last time, I shared a story about how Best Buy avoided losing my family’s phone business (and perhaps all our business) by bending the rules a little on an insurance claim that had gotten in the weeds thanks to a combination of errors on our part and theirs.

This week, car rentals. We recently drove 1300+ miles to see my mom and rented a car for the trip. Most of the adventure occurred during the rental car pickup, of course.

Deliver what you promise, unless you can’t

I reserved a small, high-mileage car for the trip. My evil plan was to rent a car whose difference in gas mileage would more or less cover the rental, while giving us a chance to check out the car.

While talking on the phone to the local guy at the  rental place, I was assured that they have one in stock. Naturally, when I got there a few hours later, they didn’t have the car I reserved. This isn’t uncommon when reservations are made online and far in advance at an airport, but when you call the local outlet and ask the “Do you have what I reserved?” question – you expect to get it. Turned out, they had so few cars that they ended up making me wait 45 minutes while they tried to clean up their “mule” (shuttle car).

The car I got was a lower mileage car than we wanted, though not terribly low, and it wasn’t the one we wanted to evaluate for purchase, so it ended up being a less productive rental than we’d hoped.

They were wise enough to end the pickup experience on a positive note by defusing the frustration of a 45 minute wait by waiving the fuel charges and saying “Bring it back as empty as you can.”  If you’re calculating the cost of defusing situations like this in your business, keep in mind that the fuel charge savings of at most $30 isn’t what defuses the situation. Owning up to the inconvenience, apologizing and making an effort to ease the annoyance is where the situation is turned around.

Owning up is part of earning return business

With some clients, owning up, apologizing and putting $30 on the table won’t be enough. That’s why it’s critical to train your staff and give them the authority (and boundaries) to resolve situations like this without forcing the client to hear them restate policy, wait for permission to escalate the issue, wait for a response from corporate, etc. Making your clientele wait another 45 minutes and getting them on the phone with the corporate call center will make things worse, not better. That’s why last week’s BB situation worked – there was no waiting.

Waiving the fuel charge meant more than not worrying about the fuel – it meant not making an extra stop before returning the car. Little things…

Little lies are still lies

On the negative side, there was a token apology for not having the reserved car we’d talked about, and of course, no action on that. However, I understand that things happen and you can’t give someone a car you don’t have (the car didn’t come back on time from the prior renter).

In your business, this is where you take the opportunity to make things better, not worse. For example, they could have retrieved the same make/model car from the airport (30 miles away), or suggested that I go there and pick up that car to save time and then comp the airport parking of my car. They didn’t offer either.

When I asked why they operate differently from the airport, such as charging us for a day when they are closed, I got the excuse that local rental locations “work differently” than the airport location because “we’re a different company”. Of course both use the same reservation systems, corporate branding and pricing.  But they’re different.

Train the excuses out of your staff

Not long ago I heard someone say “Excuses are a lie wrapped in a reason.”

In your internal training, you’ve got to repeatedly reinforce that things like this are unacceptable discussion points.  They aren’t malicious, but they become part of your story because you’ve told them 100 or 1000 times. Each one is a paper cut on your culture and your reputation, and eventually – those cuts bleed.