My business is too small!

It may seem that the strategies and tactics we talk about here that are intended to improve your business might relate solely to bigger businesses. A company with lots of staff, a big office and plenty of cash can make these things happen easily, right? And these things apply only to those bigger companies, at least, that’s what you might be thinking. Thing is, that really isn’t true. If your first thought tends to be “my business is too small to do that“, give yourself a chance. Step back a bit and look deeper at what we’re trying to accomplish and let the complexity fade to the background. The key is to pan for gold: find the fundamental outcome that these discussions are about.

A small company will almost never implement things the same way a bigger one would. That doesn’t mean that the small company shouldn’t implement them. Both have the same fundamental needs, like more sales, better leads, faster delivery (or something), and so on.

For example, the discussion might be something that seems complex, like a marketing calendar or lead curation. Both of those things may seem like overkill for a small company – but neither of them are. If we drill down into what they’re trying to accomplish, I think that will become evident.

Let’s talk about what lead curation really is. Why? It’s a great example of one of these “bigger business” things can be implemented by a small, or even one person business… Even if you think “my business is too small”.

What is lead curation?

Leads come into your reach in different stages. They might be ready to buy. The late Chet Holmes said his experience showed that three percent of your market is always ready to buy. The other 97% might be researching, recently decided to investigate, may have determined that their existing solution isn’t doing what they need, and so on. Out of 100 or 100,000 leads, you will find natural groupings like this.

If someone is ready to buy, your sales team (even if the entire team is you) needs to know they’re ready so that someone can start a “ready to buy” conversation with that lead. If someone from your team (or you) have an early-in-the-process kind of conversation with them, you may lose them.

A lead who has recently started researching solutions like yours will likely be put off by a sales person who opens a “ready to buy” conversation. Someone else (or you, if there is no someone else) needs to have the kind of conversation with that lead that will help fulfill their research needs as it relates to your product. This might be the time to provide them with a comparison form (ie: buyer’s guide) that helps them make a purchase decision.

For each stage a lead is in, the conversation that the lead needs to have with your sales team (or you) is a conversation that helps them come to the conclusion that it’s time to move to the next stage. Bear in mind, they don’t necessarily think in these stages, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

That is but one example of “something your business should do”. It’s a good example of something that a bigger company might have software or some sort of system to manage.

You may not have or need those things, but that doesn’t mean the process isn’t important to your success and growth.

“My business is too small for lead curation”

Based on this description of lead curation, it’s not a size thing. It’s all about having the right conversations with people based on where they are in the process of deciding to buy. The smallest company needs to do this – and in fact, the smallest companies are both awesome and horrible at this. You’ll either see them having the same conversation with every lead (horrible), or they will cater very specifically to each lead (awesome).

For a small business, figuring out how to perform lead curation and keep track of what has been done to move your leads through each stage of buying is still important. It isn’t important how the smallest of small businesses does this. It isn’t important how the bigger business does this. It isn’t important that the bigs and the smalls use the same tools or techniques.

What’s important is that it gets done.

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.

Critical process testing: Both expensive and cheap.

How do you perform critical process testing? Critical processes are sensitive to any failure, not just the major ones we tend to worry about most. When your products get out into the real world, they encounter a mix of simple, complex and very complex environments. Likewise, they are often used in a mix of simple, complex and highly integrated workflows.

“Any failure” is often an easily overlooked, simple little environmental thing. These little things didn’t cross someone’s mind early enough in the design, creation, production and testing processes. The simplest oversight or miscalculation about the nature of environments can easily derail a complex product.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

A rather disconcerting programming-related comment I’ve heard for decades is “Works on my machine”, otherwise known as “WOMM”. In context, the full comment might be “I tested the program and it works fine on my machine.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean anything. As Mike Tyson has said, “Everyone had a plan until I hit them.” Likewise, every program has been “tested” until it has been deployed.

A WOMM comment implies that the program wasn’t tested in an environment more complex than the one used to create it. In other words, testing wasn’t anywhere near as comprehensive as it should have been.

Don’t be so quick to think that your shop is immune to this simply because my example refers to software. A marketing process or sales process is just as likely to suffer from a lack of proper testing. This is the classic “Can’t see the forest for the trees” situation. Those creating your products are often focused too close to the product’s development to truly understand how it is normally and properly used in the field.

Management has a testing responsibility too

Not understanding how your products and services are used in the field is a disadvantage for your creative team. A frequent problem with all testing (not just critical process testing) is that it occurs too close to the environment used to develop the process. I’ve mentioned that I often proofread a written piece by reading it aloud. I do this because the use of a second media reveals obvious problems hidden by familiarity with a piece. Adding environments to your testing process is a similar tactic.

An instrumental part of your testing is making sure that the shifts in environment are properly covered. If your teams aren’t exposed to the reality of the environments where your products and services are used, it’s more difficult to take them seriously – much less know those environments even exist.

Making this happen is management’s responsibility. Allowing your creative team to spend the money and time to experience the real world environment where their products are used is huge. Taking a step beyond that to allow time for testing in real world scenarios and environments will pay huge dividends. These investments pay off in both product quality, and with the vision of your creative team being more in touch with your clients’ reality.

Whose responsibility is multi-environment critical process testing?

Your creative types (programmers, engineers, etc) may feel the duty of testing on a broad range of environments falls entirely to your quality control team. After all, your quality control team is usually tasked with a mix of testing new changes and testing for regressions (ie: new problems created in existing functionality) across many different environments.

That might seem the same job as developing in and for multiple environments, but it isn’t. When complex environments are involved, your programmers, engineers or other creative folks might often think their time is too valuable to spend creating and testing on a number of different environments. They have a point, but that doesn’t mean their development has to occur in the simplest environment possible. Left untreated, product creation will occur on the systems and tools closest and most familiar to the creative team. This leads to WOMM but also to designs that don’t reflect the reality of the environments where your creations are actually used.

The real world is far more complex any single programmer or engineer’s work environment. If you aren’t providing a range of ready to use work environments for them, the natural thing is for them to use the tools that are already available. This isn’t ideal for them or for your clients.

Think about and invest in your creative people and critical testing process: Expose them to reality.

Pennies add up for the strategically efficient

Part of my unique ability is to help clients think and act in the most strategically efficient way possible. It isn’t necessarily to save pennies everywhere we can, but to save the “best” pennies. In other words, the ones that have the most impact.

I visited a client this past week who makes a good example of strategic efficiency. They are in a highly regulated business, so they take steps to squeeze the most impact out of the pennies they save. Even in innocuous areas like invoicing, there is substantial impact.

For example, when bills are processed and delivered properly, well over 100,000 go out each day. If they are not prepared properly, the cost of delivering them can increase by $1000 per day, possibly more. When you send this many bills a month, there are a number of tactics you can use to save as little as $0.001 to $0.003 per bill.

While that seems like a tiny savings, at scale it adds up to real money.

Saving $30,000 a month, a penny at a time

When they put systems in place to do things in the most strategically efficient manner, they could identify *daily* savings of $1000 per day, every work day. That’s hard money, not touchy feely savings that don’t show up on a bank statement. $1000 per day adds up in a hurry, regardless of the size of the business.

It isn’t just about handling these bills properly. It’s also about handling them on time.

Should these bills go out late, you can imagine that cash flow is negatively affected in a substantial way because clients who don’t get bills on time wont pay them on time. If everything goes well, on certain days of the month, they might be able to “loan” money using short term finance mechanisms.

Process affects transit time

If the bills are late going out by only an hour, they can miss their transit window. If they make their window, it all but guarantees invoice delivery on the next business day. If they miss the window, it will mean bills arrive late and believe it or not, it will mean some customers pay later than normal.

The cascading effect of these tiny shifts can hamper cash flow from that set of customers for the next month. Some days of the month, that may mean they have to manage overall cash flow far more carefully, simply by how things come together that month. Timing matters.

If the processing that gets these bills out the door has problems frequently, it can put pressure on cash flow that affects the entire business.

Yes, but we don’t mail bills

You might be thinking that this “old school” business could gain from efficiencies like emailed bills and other electronic transaction processing. They do, however they are not in a position for force their entire customer base away there. As with some of your clientele (I suspect), there are some who want a paper bill, and others who require a paper trail, even today.

For those invoices, on-time delivery still affects payment patterns and thus, cash flow. Electronic delivery also has requirements to keep it strategically efficient, such as delivery management and bounce processing. If there are no systems in place to monitor delivery and assure that every single bill arrived, those bills will not likely get paid. If they arrived late, they’ll likely be paid late.

“Oh, it’s just email delivery” isn’t simply a minor annoyance when it becomes a cash flow impact factor.

The boring, innocuous back office

Those “boring”, innocuous back office processes may not be as exciting as the innovative, front-line business things you’re doing to close sales and retain clients. Their level of efficiency, quality, and timeliness has a broad impact on the day to day operation of your business.

Whether these processes are based on paper, email, electronic transactions or a combination of all of those things, they (and the company) will benefit from constant improvement and fall back protections. You (and everyone else) will sleep better at night because you know these things are more consistent and more resilient.

Your back room processes fuel what’s going on in research and development, sales and elsewhere. Be sure to make them as strategically efficient as possible.

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.

How fast can your business go?

Is your business ready to face a no-huddle offense?

In case you aren’t a football fan, here’s a quick summary of differences between “regular” and “no-huddle” offenses:

  • A regular offense has 25-30 seconds (depending on the league) to “read” signals (instructions) from coaches on the sideline, swap players in and out from the bench (if desired), huddle (have a brief meeting) and start the next play. In the huddle, the quarterback tells everyone what the play is, communicates the information necessary to run the play, and makes sure everyone knows what signal they’ll use to trigger the hiking of the ball to start the play. The read, swap, huddle process starts as players walk and/or jog back to their teammates at the end of the previous play.
  • A no-huddle offense handles the read signals, swap players and huddle steps as they run back to the line to setup for the next play. As soon as they are set, the ball is usually hiked to start the play. Instead of 25-30 seconds between plays, you might see 8 to 12 seconds (on average) on a well run no-huddle offense.

The big difference between these two setups is that the defense also has the same time to read, meet, swap and setup for the next offensive play – with the regular offense. With the no-huddle offense, the defense has to react much more quickly. While the offense has to move fast to keep the defense “unprepared”, they at least know what’s going to happen next – even if the quarterback makes last minute changes (audibles) before the play starts.

A no-huddle offense quickly exposes defenses that haven’t practiced against no-huddle offenses. More importantly, it exposes a team without a system in place to deal with playing a no-huddle team.

Ok, that was a long-winded setup, but I didn’t want to lose anyone unfamiliar with football in the U.S. The point of comparing the regular offense and the no-huddle offense is that there are parallels between how defenses handle the tempo of a no-huddle game and how your business deals with the increasing tempo of business, much less the pace of change.

Are you feeling the pressure to deliver faster than last year? Did you go faster last year than the year before? Do you expect this need to accelerate every year is going to continue, or do you think that things will go back to normal once you get past this next push?

I think you need to plan on need for speed sticking around for the duration.

Two ways to go fast

With that expectation on your back, the need to increase There are two ways to go fast – with haste, or with a system.

While those who start off with haste might get a lead, it’s pretty typical that they will find themselves assembling the plane while rolling down the runway. Some pull it off. Most don’t, because they aren’t designed for speed. Instead, they simply decided to go fast.

Deciding to go fast is OK. Deciding to do it without a system designed to keep the quality of everything at level your clients are used to (or better) is risky.

Systems are the key

A system of systems is what you’ll need to increase speed without losing the quality and other factors your clients already depend on. Each system can be simple, but you have to be able to replicate it, perhaps automate it and most of all – depend on it to perform a certain job. A system’s job might be to check the quality of one step of a process, or simply to verify its completion. 10 systems might check quality at 10 places, or might make sure you follow up properly, insure that you have the right data recorded, or confirm that you have the right materials and labor scheduled for a particular item. These processes become a system of systems when they work together to help your business work.

When this system of systems is designed to protect the moving parts of your business, then you’re designed for speed and can increase the speed of production and delivery without risking quality and reputation.

Once you have these things in place, you’ll be more difficult to compete with. Not only do competitors have to keep up with your quality, but now they also are forced to deal with the pace you maintain.

Communicate when nature threatens

Last week I said “Allowing perceptions to percolate in our guests’ minds without updates is dangerous not only for this year’s success, but for future years as well.

Part of your job is to set guests’ minds at ease by giving them the advice they need to make considered decisions during situations they’re unaccustomed to.

They want to protect their investment, their vacation and their families. It’s safe to say that your local, regional and/or state tourism groups, media and attractions will put effort into this. What isn’t safe to assume is that your guests will see their message and understand it as you do.

You might be the only one in the area with their name and contact info. You might be the only one who develops a relationship with them. Your business is the one that will pay the price if they get off a plane in Minneapolis and see an airport gate “if it bleeds, it leads” style news video with an uninformed announcer from 2500 miles away saying “Glacier Park is on fire“.

They don’t know what you know. You’ve seen all of this before.

Make sure they understand that and that you are giving them time-tested advice based on your knowledge of their visit and their family. YOU need to contact them and make sure they have accurate information, otherwise, their next flight might be toward home.

Details protect your business

Last time, I added a lot to your plate:

Segmenting guests into groups. Collecting emails. Collecting cell numbers. Writing emails. Sending emails. Documenting the various communication processes so anyone can do it, even if you’re tending to a sick parent. Producing templates for the emails you might need to send. Producing templates for the text messages you might need to send. Producing a fill-in-the-blanks script that a staffer can read when calling guests who are in transit or in the area. Documenting the process so that anyone on site knows who is responsible for starting the process, which one to start, who to notify and what to say.

This isn’t about creating more work for the owner/manager. This is about putting a trust-building, by the numbers, automated where necessary system in place so that it can be handled by employees who never dealt with it before.

You won’t have time to do any of this when a fire blows up in the park. You won’t have time to manually send 300 emails or make 100 phone calls while deciding what to say on the fly.

This is about creating time to deal with critical high-season work when you least want to be “messing around with emails”, even if your place isn’t directly threatened. These tasks need to be organized, tested and ready to implement before the season starts.

Fine tuning the message

When you sit down to build this system, you’ll have a lot to think about. For example, the urgency and means of contacting them is as different as the message for each group and situation.

What conditions that merit separate communications and (most likely) separate messages? What groups should be split out of “the entire list of guests”?

A number of situations will expose themselves as you think it through. Go back over prior years and think about the times you handled this well and not so well. What did you learn after the fact that you didn’t consider when things were unfolding? Your own experiences count too – How was this done when you were on vacation and unexpected problems occurred?

Two examples:

  • If evacuations or cancellations are necessary, will evacuated / cancelled guests get priority booking for a substitute stay at your property?
  • As the situation unfolds, it will become more clear what to say to your guests with reservations a month or more out – but you need to communicate the plan now so they know what to expect. What will you say?

Your business may not be affected by fire season but nature threatens your business somehow and when it does, “fire season lessons” apply. Your area might be subject to drought, low (or high) water in rivers/lakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, or a damaged bridge instead of a forest fire.

No matter what happens, send the right message to the right guests in a timely manner in the right way. Build trust. Practice, automate, document, delegate.

 

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.

The importance of performance metrics

Last time, we talked about metrics that answer questions to help you increase sales.

Metrics aren’t solely about sales and marketing. Quality and performance metrics drive your business. Can you identify a few that would cause serious concern if they changed by as little as five percent?

If there are, how are you monitoring them? Monitoring and access to that info is what I was initially referring to last time. The performance metrics I’ve been working on are a mix of uptime, event and work completion information. In each case, a metric could indicate serious trouble if it changed substantially.

Uptime metrics

An uptime metric shows how long something has been running without incident. In some fields, particularly technology, it’s not unusual to have seemingly crazy uptime expectations.

Anyone who has picked up a landline phone is familiar with the standard in uptime metrics – the dial tone. For years, it was the standard because it was quite rare to pick up the phone and not get a dial tone. Its presence became an expectation, much as our as yet unfilled expectation of always-unavailable cell and internet service is today. The perceived success rate of the dial tone is probably a bit higher than reality thanks to our memory of the “good old days”.

Today’s replacement for the dial tone is internet-related service. Years ago a business would feel isolated and threatened when phone service went out. Today, it’s not unusual for a business to feel equally vulnerable when internet service is out. The seemingly crazy uptime expectations are there because more businesses function across timezones (much less globally) than they did a few decades ago. Web site / online service expectations these days are at “nine nines” or higher.

Nine nines of uptime, ie: 99.9999999% uptime, is a frequently quoted standard in the technology business. Taken literally, this means less than one second of downtime in 20 years. There are systems that achieve this level of uptime because they aren’t dependent on one machine. The service is available at that level, not any one device. Five nines (99.999%) of uptime performance allows for a little over five minutes of downtime per year. Redundancy allows this level of service to be achieved.

Events that idle equipment and people are expensive. What’s your uptime metric for services, systems, critical tools like your CNC, trucks on the road (vs. on the side of the road), etc?

Event metrics

Event metrics are about how often something happens, or doesn’t happen – like “days since a lost work injury” or “days since we had to pull a software release because of a serious, previously unseen bug“.

In those two examples, the event is about keeping folks focused on safety first and safety procedures, as well as defensive programming and completeness of testing. You might measure how many crashes your software’s metrics reported in the last 24 hours and where they were. Presumably, this would help you focus on what to fix next.

What event metrics do you track?

Work completion metrics

Work completion metrics might be grouped with event metrics, but I prefer to keep them separate. Work completion is a performance and quality metric.

Performance completion not only shows that something was finished, but that successful completion is a quality indicator. Scrap rates and scrap reuse get a lot of attention from manufacturers in part because of the raw material costs associated with them. Increasing scrap rates can indicate performance and quality problems that need immediate attention.

One system I work with processes about 15,000 successful events a day – not much in the technology world when compared to Google or Microsoft, but critical for that small business. If the number dropped to only 14,900 per day, their phones and email would light up with client complaints, so there’s a lot of emphasis on making sure that work completes successfully. Catching and resolving problems quickly is critical, so redundant status checks happen every 15 seconds.

Events of this nature are commonly logged, but reviewing logs is tedious work and can be error prone. Logs add up quickly and can contain many thousands of lines of info per day – too much to monitor by hand / eye via manual methods.

These days, business dashboards are a much more consumable way of communicating this type of information quickly and keeping attention on critical numbers – such as this example from klipfolio.com:

business performance metrics dashboard

What work completion metrics do you track?

Half of China’s companies do this

Recently, I was reading a story in the New York Times about a Chinese city’s effort to vastly expand their use of industrial robotics. The story’s video hits home 98 seconds in.

The official being interviewed indicates that the city’s goal is to reduce the number of employees by half and finishes his sentence by saying “many companies are working toward this goal“.

Not one company in one town. Not the company responsible for the birth of Chinese industrial robotics, but “many companies”.

Why expand robotics use?

They’re doing this by working toward the creation and deployment of high-quality “human-like” robotics technology.

A senior manager at one of their leading manufacturers of industrial robots says “China’s demand for industrial robots has been on the rise year after year. Compared to America, Japan and Europe, the increase in demand is enormous.

When I dig a little deeper, I find that there are a number of reasons for this drive to expand the robotization of China – and not all of them are expected:

  • They can’t hire enough people fast enough.
  • Their level of output has stagnated because there are only so many places to put all of these people, which drives…
  • They are encouraging people who have abandoned rural areas to move back to their hometowns – in part to take some of their skills with them.
  • To cut manufacturing costs.
  • To increase safety

What’s this got to do with your small business?

Perhaps nothing. However, a few of the items on China’s list are likely to fit business needs where you are, even though the scale of your project might be dwarfed by a large Chinese manufacturing business.

Can’t hire enough people fast enough.

Not a week goes by without hearing this from someone. Now, to be sure, some of this is driven by salary levels, but most of it is driven by the availability (or lack of it) of trained people in some skill areas. It’s of particular concern in rural areas where you find specialized businesses putting down roots, or simply growing out of local need to create jobs and enterprise.

One of the key things that challenge the expansion of modern businesses in rural areas is the availability of skilled workers with advanced skill sets. Not everyone needs these, but those who do struggle to fill openings when they’re ready to expand.

Abandoned rural areas

China’s encouraging people to move back to their hometowns, in part because some of their urban centers are overwhelmed. Hopefully some of this is also because of a desire to improve urban worker lifestyles. The abandonment of rural hometowns isn’t limited to China, however. In the U.S., rural communities have been shrinking due to “brain drain” as their graduates move away to college and either don’t ever return, or perhaps don’t return for several decades. If they wait several decades, they don’t necessarily come back to town and start families. Instead, they come back as empty nesters.

To lure graduates with newly-gained modern skills, their hometown needs a place to work where they can use those skills. Kids don’t run off to college and get an engineering degree so they can move back to town and manage a franchise restaurant.

To cut manufacturing costs

As I noted above, the graduates we want to keep at home need a place to leverage their skills and that place needs to be competitive in the global market they serve, otherwise the jobs are tenuous as the employer simply cannot compete in the long term.

To increase safety

Safety has been a topic for discussion here in Montana for a while, due to a less than ideal safety record in recent years. While some of this can be addressed through training and safety equipment, there is another way to cut down on dangerous work.

Yes, robotics

These last four items can be addressed in part – not completely – through robotics. Maybe you aren’t ready today. Maybe you don’t manufacture today. Maybe you already have some automation in place. Maybe you and your staff worry that you will be risking your business and its jobs by involving robotics.

Maybe you’ll be risking your business and its jobs if you don’t involve robotics.

While it’s not applicable to every business, it’s worth a look. A safer, more productive workplace creates jobs that more likely to stick around.