Structure becomes infrastructure

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the value of checklists. Checklists provide an obvious memory support mechanism and a sequence of events for work processes, but their value extends beyond that. They’re one of many tools you can use to provide structure to work processes, a comforting “I’ve got your back” to new employees or employees new to a role. In addition, they’re a means of creating some standardization of what you do. While your team doesn’t need these things for the same reason that a young child benefits from a structured life, the benefits to your business are at least as important. Structure becomes infrastructure.

Better information

Structure can take many forms in your business. A simple example is a gain in structure when you move from a cigar box to a cash register. Likewise, when you replace the simple cash register with one that’s integrated with your customer relationship management (CRM) system. These improvements increase your ability to share information and leverage it when making decisions of all kinds. Normally a CRM is viewed as a tool for sales and marketing, yet the organization that it brings to transactional data tends to improve service and your company’s understanding of client needs. Any time you can integrate data from multiple parts of the company, you’re almost certain to make the data more valuable. Put simply, having more complete information should yield better decisions.

That transaction data now takes on a behavioral component, since you’re better equipped to recognize order / re-order patterns, capacity expectations and the like. Seems like a sales thing on the surface, and to an extent it is. When you are the business who knows exactly when to refill a client’s supply of a critical component of their business, the trust and comfort level with you improves.

Clients will recognize this and start to depend on your routine fulfillment – whatever that means for your relationship with them. Whether it’s a load of sand, a dozen bags of coffee, or a courier pickup – when they see a consistent, timely behavior develop, they’ll start to depend on as if it’s part of their own infrastructure. Eventually, they’ll build upon it. That’s not just sales – it’s service. While it may seem like a little thing to know that your coffee cup is always refilled in time, that same type of fulfillment isn’t a little thing – it’s worth time and money to your clients. You become part of their business – and perhaps a part that would be increasingly painful to replace.

Being painful and time-consuming to replace is a good goal, but don’t take advantage of it. Being ingrained in their business is sufficient advantage. Don’t make it the kind of pain of change that they’ll suffer simply to gain the pleasure of getting rid of you.

What tools and/or processes can you wrap around your existing checklists and other means of process control to make them more valuable? What two systems, tools or processes can you integrate to make each more valuable? Your people are often the best resource of this info. They’re in the trenches every day and frequently have just the insights needed to make their work more productive, more valuable and more efficient.

But you have to ask.

What structure isn’t

It isn’t control, at least in a negative form. Structure changes that increase your ability to get, stay and be organized are often looked upon as ways of increasing control and decreasing employees’ ability to use their imagination and creativity. While that’s possible, those are what I consider the wrong kinds of structure. Be sure your team understands the benefits you hope the company will gain from these changes. It’s far too easy to assume the wrong thing if you don’t tell them the intended outcome.

Tools and processes that increase the level of organization free your people to expend their energy on the things that require their intelligence and experience. If you use structure to control them and limit their ability to create and deliver solutions – you’re cheating yourself and your clients. Unless the controls you’re putting in place are intended to reduce / detect internal theft or similar problems, I suggest discussing proposed improvements with your staff so you are aware of possible downsides that you may not be aware of. Finally, deployment always benefits from front line feedback and of course, testing.

Starting A New Business: Part 5 – Infrastructure

Infrastructure is one of those things you don’t necessarily think about as a new business owner.

Thing is, strong infrastructure often turns out to be the competitive edge that no one (other than you) notices.

Your clientele notices “stuff”:

  • You’re always on top of things and that you rarely, if ever, have to say “oh, that fell in a crack.”
  • Your staff knows where orders, parts and service people are, when they’ll be show up and what, if anything, is holding them up.
  • Your staff is proactive more often than not.
  • You don’t lose checks, invoices, legal forms and other marginally important paperwork (yes, that was sarcasm).
  • Their priorities never seem to get lost in yours.
  • You rarely (if ever) miss a deadline – particularly one that would embarrass or damage their business.

In other words, they notice when you really have your act together. Not only do they notice, but they remember, tell others and keep coming back.

The price of worry

Infrastructure is what helps you keep from worrying about “stuff” every single day.

Every moment you spend fretting about “stuff”, chasing down minutiae, emailing to ask for status reports is time focused on things that you shouldn’t even have to think about.

When you have infrastructure in place that takes these things off your mind, your mind is free to do more important thinking. More valuable thinking about things (and on a level) that transforms what you do.

Something as simple as an automated website backup process that sends your content to an offsite backup location is one less menial task and one less brain-sucking thing to keep in the back of your mind.

Do-It-Yourself?

Entrepreneurs are often DIY kinds of folks because we want something slightly better than the norm. It’s why we build solutions.

It also means we spend time on things we have no business doing. Either we aren’t any good at it, or we don’t have time to get (much less stay) current in that activity. It might be computers, your network, plumbing, human resources, benefits or event management.

Frequently these things involve some combination of legal, insurance, finance and taxes. Not the kind of “stuff” you want to mess up.

Little things that can destroy a day…or a week

If I lose electricity, I lose water because our well requires a pump. Meanwhile, my computers will be up for another hour or so thanks to uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), giving me time to backup, shutdown my systems cleanly and leave if I need to keep working.

Few people backup enough, for example. If lightning from one of the thunderstorms that visit your coastline almost every day destroys your computer, you get to buy a new computer and waste a day setting it up. If your customer and order data isn’t backed up, you’ll spend even more time re-entering your customer/order data – if you have it on paper somewhere. So much for those orders you needed to ship tomorrow.

I do all my client work in VMs (VM = virtual machine). I backup the VMs I use to a portable external drive. I backup to it regularly and test it often to make sure it works. Regularly does not mean annually – it means weekly, worst case. The work I do for clients is backed up constantly.

This means I can run out the door with nothing but that external drive, go to a local store, buy a computer, download VMWare and be working again without losing a thing, inside an hour – anywhere. Allowing the failure of a $500 desktop computer to kill your business is just foolish.

Your business might not be as portable as mine, and that’s ok. The takeaway, no matter what you do, is “Protect your ability to continue to do business productively”.

The back of your mind is full

The back of your mind is full enough already. Let it focus on serious work that only you can do and let experts take care of the important stuff outside of your expertise. The same goes for your staff. That back of the mind stuff is what infrastructure does so well.

Think long-term and strategically about infrastructure investments – and then invest as soon as you can.