Why your growing company needs to work slower

You might have seen last week’s discussion of automating administrivia and clerical work simply as a systemization of the E-Myth. That’s fair, but remember that the goal was to reduce cognitive load on focus workers. We didn’t eliminate ALL administrivia and clerical work – and you can’t. Discussions on scaling a growing company rarely cover the burden this work creates. The key to keeping this work from bogging things down? Work slower.

Work slower?

A few years ago, Richard Tripp and I were talking about the challenges of installation and on-boarding in complex enterprise environments. He started the conversation by asserting that “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

As he explained, you have to slow down your processes to improve them.

On a rough road, potholes, dips, and washboards make it difficult to drive safely at high speeds. On a smooth paved road, accelerating to and maintaining cruising speed is easier, safer, and more comfortable. The situation is exactly the same for a growing company’s admin and clerical work.

Note the emphasis on “and maintaining” in the previous paragraph. It isn’t fast to repeatedly accelerate, slow down, then accelerate back to cruising speed. It’s jerky and disruptive. If processes aren’t streamlined and capable of consistent speed and volume, then the work is neither smooth nor fast.

A flat tire on a busy highway

Process disruptions kill you when you’re trying to scale operations.

Fits and starts are demoralizing. One-offs to deal with random failures and issues consume a ton of time and take your team off task. This frustrates your team and delays work output – often backing up other work as a result.

These problems impact your operations like a flat tire affects travel on a busy highway. When a car has a flat, the impact isn’t limited to that car – it slows down the surrounding cars.

In your business, work (traffic) backs up, plus the task that suffered the failure (the car with the flat) is completely halted. Any work dependent on the stopped task is also at a dead stop. A shipment stuck in production can hold up packaging, shipping, the loading dock, invoicing, or other areas.

When you work slower, you create time and space that makes it easier to identify and eliminate the bumps and potholes in your processes. “Slow is smooth” takes shape. It’s about reviewing fundamentals, but also about the deconstruction and review of each part of the process.

Hummingbirds and governors

If you’ve ever watched a hummingbird fly, there’s not much to see. By naked eye, the wings are a blur at best. The bird hovers and appears to veer about as it flies. It seems anything but smooth.

In a slow-motion video, the beauty of a hummingbird’s flight is revealed. Every motion is smooth and consistent – motion that looks much different to the naked eye. Likewise, slowing down your processes and analyzing them step by step allows you to identify inefficient motion, poorly designed screens and paperwork, as well as unnecessary steps.

The elimination of inefficient motion isn’t the reason for a governor, but the idea is similar. A governor is a physical device that changes position as rotational speed of the governed mechanism increases. Eventually, rotational speed reaches a point where the governor moves into a position that cuts the throttle or otherwise limits the speed of movement.

Like speed, scaling reveals flaws

Governors are used to limit machine speed, giving the machine a means of protecting itself.  A mechanism without a governor could gain enough rotational speed to tear itself apart.

Your processes at at risk in the same way. If your business is used to shipping 100 items a day or onboarding 15 new customers a month, things change when you double those numbers – or add a digit. Where 100 shipments a day sustained you, 1000 a day might put you out of business. Under those conditions, an ungoverned not-so-smooth business can tear itself apart.

Smoothly-operated, well-rehearsed processes can accelerate to high speed and high volume without exploding – thus “smooth is fast“. You may need to get faster equipment to handle the volume, but faster equipment won’t fix a broken process. It simply breaks it at high speed.

Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of your work processes allows you to be ready to “remove the governor” at any time, without allowing the business to destroy itself.

Not on my watch!

Watches (32) 1.1

Most everyone I’ve talked to who really cares about their work has that one thing that brings meaning, context and (as my kids used to say) “give-a-care” to the work they do.

You might have heard it described as “Not on my watch”, a reference to pulling watch duty on naval ships.

The best way I’ve heard it described is this:

What do you feel strongly enough about to say “That isn’t going to happen while I’m here.”

Whether you own the place or are working for the weekend, it’s that thing you just won’t rest about if it isn’t done right. It might be that thing you first notice when you visit someone’s home or business.

Are any of your employees working jobs that have little to do with their one thing? If so, they may be doing their assigned work while watching in frustration as the work involving their “one thing” is done at a level of quality or expertise that’s below their expectations.

Sometimes their response will be to take another job – one that leverages their one thing. Sometimes their response will be to take ownership.

Own it

You may see this when someone takes ownership of some part of your company – without being asked. It might be all or part of a process, a product’s quality or craftsmanship, a customer or a customer group. They take ownership by making the quality of that area their responsibility, perhaps going beyond your company’s standards. It’ll often happen without them being asked.

If you have employees, have you asked them (or put them in charge of) their “one thing”? If not, the signals will be there if they’re interested. They’ll make suggestions – often good ones – about how something is done. They may volunteer to help on projects that require expertise in their one thing.

If your company has people who seem less motivated than they should be, ask them if they’re doing their ideal work for you. If they could do any job in the company, is the one they’re doing the one they’d choose? If not, a pilot project can show you if they’re qualified to do that work.

If the pilot works out, you might find yourself with a newly motivated employee who really cares about the work they’re doing. New blood has a way of asking questions about things that’ve been forgotten, fallen in the cracks or weren’t considered previously – all because that new staffer (even if they’re simply new to that job) cares about that part of the business because it’s their “one thing”.

In the shadows

You may have departments within your company doing their own thing because they can’t get that work done any other way – at least not to their satisfaction and/or within the timeframe they need.

At a recent #StartupWeekend, I spoke on this topic with people from several different business sectors ranging from retail to light manufacturing. Each of them knew of a department within their company that had a “Shadow IT” group.

“Shadow IT” is a small departmental group (or a person) building technology solutions for themselves that they couldn’t get from their company’s IT (Information Technology) group.

One person from a large national retailer (not *that* one) is doing their own thing because they felt it was the only way to get the solutions they needed. Rather than wait or do without, they built it themselves.

This isn’t unusual – but it’s a sign of someone’s “one thing”.

That person doing the Shadow IT work might be the person who needs to take on that role (or join that team) in your company . Perhaps they become the official Shadow IT group for projects that don’t yet have an IT budget and haven’t appeared on management’ s radar.

As an employer, do I care?

You should. The under-served “one thing” staffers may not be disgruntled, but they may not be fully engaged. If you’re unaware of people (and their “one thing” assets) within your organization who could serve your business goals in ways you haven’t considered and at a level of quality that you might not have thought possible – what are you missing?

Ask them privately if there’s a project or job in the company that excites them. You never know what you might find. Having little startup-minded groups inside your business isn’t a bad thing.

Tweaks that touch the bottom line

Yesterday, we talked about a little tiny, totally-free thing that you could do to ensure that someone comes back to your business on a day that you can’t serve them.

As you might guess, there are a bunch of these little things.

They range from how you answer the phone to that little something extra you do when packing something for shipment to a customer.

It definitely impacts how you respond to calls, emails, tweets and other inquiries – such as “Do you have any iPads in stock?” (a frequent question to Apple dealers these days).

How do you answer questions that you *know* aren’t going to immediately close a sale?

Let’s use a software developer as an easy example. Upon detection of an error, they have a ton of choices:

  • You can display a technical message about what happened (“Stack push failure in c70mss.dll at C53DAE.”)
  • You can display a friendly message explaining what happened in non-technical terms. (“I’m not sure what’s wrong, but you’ve gotta reboot.”)
  • You can display a message that provides instructions to fix the problem. (“Don’t do that again. Do this instead.”)
  • You can make the program blow up and force the user to start all over again, and just skip that whole “display a message” thing.
  • You can fix the problem (and if necessary, inform the user) and move on.

That last one might make you scratch your head a bit. Remember, you went to the trouble to *detect it* and create a message, so why not just fix it when you can?

Sure, there are cases where you can’t assume what to do and you have to ask… but those are normally the exception.

Not just the geeks

The same goes for handling customer issues in your business.

You could force your staff to say “Sorry, my manager has to be here to fix that.” or you could simply put a process in place that allows them to deal with it – and do so without risking financial loss.

That’s a win in several ways:

  • It’s a win for your customer because they get helped immediately rather than having to wait for you and even worse, make a return trip to the store for something that should’ve been right in the first place.
  • It’s a win for your staff because it empowers them, giving them the emotional “reward” for helping a customer – which will motivate them to want to continue that little buzz-fest.
  • It’s a win for you because it keeps you off the phone. Rather than dealing with minimum wage questions you shouldn’t be interrupted with anyway, you can keep playing golf, fishing, planning your next strategic move and/or creating the next big thing that’ll push your business into its next big growth cycle.

If Wal-Mart can issue a refund (or execute an exchange) without requiring a phone call to the CEO in Bentonville, I think you can find a way too.

Look around. What can you tweak? Most of these things cost nothing. We might simply be talking about a once a month (or quarter) email.

You simply have to be a little more enthusiastic about thinking about the needs of your customer and how to make the next interaction with your business *even better*.

All of these things contribute to the kind of customer service, the kind of quality feel, the kind of thought process that makes a customer want to do business with no one else but you – even if they can’t put a finger on why that is.