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Leadership Management Project Management

Make a game plan, then work it

We’ve been mulling change, prioritization, and getting important tasks done. It’s time to get serious before the holidays distract you. When they’re over, having a ready-to-start game plan will help you get a solid start on the new year. Question is, what should be on your game plan?

Big rocks

We’ve all probably heard the story about putting the big rocks in the jar before adding pebbles, sand, & water.

The story resonates because we remember a time when we left the big rocks till later & then disappointed someone by missing a deadline, or being unable to fulfill a commitment.

These disappointments, failures or what have you often happen at least in part because we didn’t deal with the big rocks first. Old news for Covey followers, but worth a reminder when making a game plan.

A game plan of three things

I suggest starting with three big tasks. Looking at the list of tasks you want to accomplish in the next year, which three should have the most impactful and positive strategic result to your company over the long term?

Think about it. Discuss it with your team. Decide.

Consider the possible causes of failure. Some call this a “pre-mortem”. Make sure your game plan includes steps to defuse these issues or prevent them from becoming a problem. Think about the essential accomplishments needed to complete these tasks. Make sure everyone knows what these points are & that someone has direct responsibility to monitor them.

Painting the building may not be one of your three things, but it could be. I can recall on more than one occasion seeing a restaurant whose building had clearly been ignored for many years – and wondering if they handle food safety with the same level of care.

Up next – figure out how long these tasks will take. You need to know if your game plan is reasonable. This is not the place for fantasy.

On guesstimates

People are terrible at estimating how long a task will take. Eventually, some figure out a system for accurately estimating how long work will take because they got burned, fired, etc). This is particularly true in the technology business, but we aren’t alone.

Why is that?

We’re too optimistic about the pace we can maintain. We rarely bother to consider that we may run into an issue that we’ve not dealt with before – and the research, work (plus rework) & testing to resolve it takes time. These episodes don’t typically happen just once in a big project – which we also don’t consider.

We often discount the possibility of interruptions for urgent tasks that, while not of high importance, still must take precedence for a few hours or day. Naturally, we forget how many times this has happened based on our history, industry, team, etc.

Some folks estimate something, then “double it and add four”. Maybe that builds enough buffer into the estimate, but it’s still a wild guess with little more than gut feel to back it up. “Double/triple it” is a pretty good indication that you put insufficient thought into your estimate.

In some environments, you’ll find people will give an “instant” estimate to stop the “How long?” questioning. “You need to do this, how long will it take?” doesn’t usually have a legitimate answer when the task was unknown to you five minutes earlier. Saying “two weeks” without further introspection is simply avoiding persecution… temporarily.

It takes thought to produce a reasonably accurate estimate. This isn’t about making estimates correct to three decimal places. It’s about being reasonably close.

If you promise completion on January 15, you need to have confidence in that date from day one. If you know from the start that you’ll never make the date, don’t know if you can make it, or can only make it if everything goes perfectly – you’re asking for trouble.

Work backward

Big tasks should be broken down into pieces before you can estimate them. Starting from task completion & working backward helps us remember steps we might otherwise forget.

Estimate your list of steps. Break down steps estimated over four hours & estimate the new steps. Four hours seems extreme, but it’s a timeframe we can wrap our heads around. In your line of work, maybe it’s four days. You know where your estimation accuracy really shines.

Make a game plan. Work your plan. Get big things accomplished.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Categories
Management

Short term focus creates long term pain

If business were simple, everyone would have one of those Easy buttons on their desk. Your short term focus each day would be to remember to push the button. All that’d be left would be to head home for dinner, or maybe out to the lake or golf course.

The next morning, everything would be taken care of. If you had any employees that you were thinking of letting go, they would’ve left resignation letters on your desk. If you had any openings, there’d be twice as many great applicants as openings. Customers would be lined up out the door, throwing money at your website, etc. All your accounts receivables would be at zero. No one would complain about anything. Vendors would do everything you asked on budget and on time.

Thing is, business isn’t simple, much less the fairytale I described. Yet it’s still easy to find people with a short term focus, which usually leads to poor decisions.

Short term focus? How?

When I say short term focus leads to poor decisions, you might ask “Why?”, even though the evidence is consistent and overwhelming.

Even when we exclude an apparent flood of unethical behavior, big companies and governments find themselves in bad (yet largely preventable) situations due to decisions made with a short term focus.

If you need examples, Google any large company name associated with a large layoff: Wells Fargo, Verizon, Deutsche Bank, GM.

Other than contractors affected by a government shutdown, it’s difficult to find a situation where 30,000 employees that you needed on Friday suddenly became unnecessary on Monday.

Companies keep thousands of employees past the end of a quarter to avoid hurting their stock price, or to avoid having to talk about a layoff (and its backstory) on a call with Wall Street. It can be as simple as an upper level manager delaying action on a situation they know they need to fix because their bonus is tied to end of quarter stock price.

On the government side of things, look at any large infrastructure project (say, US highway bridges) where ongoing maintenance has been delayed for years because the funding was “borrowed” for pork barrel projects. A decade or two later, someone discovers that thousands of bridges are structurally unsound.

Anything to make a sale?

In your business, the numbers might be smaller but the pressures are no less severe. Making payroll can cause business owners to do things they’d avoid otherwise. Almost every business has faced a cash crunch as payroll day approached, even if you were the only one on the payroll at the time. It’s tempting to make what seems like a good decision at the time. That’s the kind of short term decision I’m talking about.

For example, have any of your larger customers told you (not asked, mind you) that to do business with them, they’ll require 90 or 120 day terms because of “business pressures”? Some will reject that business, but many won’t because they need the revenue.

It seems like saying OK to such things is a good decision. We got a new big customer. Let’s tell everyone. We’re sure to get a bunch of business from other people when they see that GiantCorp uses us, so it’ll be OK to deal with undesirable terms for a while.

Long term pain

Trouble is, that rarely happens and those terms are rarely temporary. More often than not, accepting such ridiculous and downright abusive terms is a bad long term decision for a small company.

Short term mindset: “It’s OK to borrow a little to make payroll.” Problem is, even if you don’t borrow to make that payroll, there’s risk in this short term “win”.

Imagine your surprise, when a few weeks later that nice young man from GiantCorp advises you that their new payables policy is 180 day terms (hint: you can say no). If you don’t make a fuss (a short term focus decision), it means you won’t see a check for another 30 to 90 days – even then you might have to badger them to get paid.

Now, you have a payroll funded by debt and another coming in a couple weeks. Oh and GiantCorp just placed another big order today.

This is but one example of why you have to think and act long term, even if it slows you down a little.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

Categories
Business culture Employees Management

Self-healing teams

Last week we talked about applying self-healing tactics to the tools, systems, and infrastructure that are a critical path to a productive business day. We also discussed ways to make downtime less of a factor for the tools, systems, and infrastructure that can’t self-heal.

While these efforts are useful, creating resiliency and the ability to “take a punch” aren’t limited to tools, systems, and infrastructure. Your team can also benefit from self-healing approaches.

Preemptive self-healing

While self-healing is a valuable tactic for saving time & money, and improving productivity regarding your tools, systems, and infrastructure, people are a bit more complex. People are a bit harder to heal, plus the capacity for self-healing varies a good bit between individuals.

Teams, on the other hand, benefit a great deal from preemptive self-healing. Most of this comes out of extreme care taken when hiring. The same level of care is needed when making team assignments. If you look back over time at the problems you’ve discovered on your teams, you’ll likely find some consistency in the ingredients of the turmoil you dealt with.

You might have someone who simply isn’t a culture fit. Or they could’ve been a jerk. Maybe both.

You might have inadvertently mixed personality types that simply don’t work well together. There’s some value to “You folks need to figure it out”, but it’s still on you to monitor the situation and make sure the effort is being made. It’s not all that unusual to have two people on a team who are solid, qualified people who don’t jell well with one another for whatever reason.

Whatever drama that creates is not likely worth whatever you think you’re going to gain by forcing them to work together. Sometimes, one of them just has to go. These decisions aren’t easy. It’s not unusual to find that a top performer is also the one who doesn’t jell with the rest of the team.

Toxic top performers

To that end, if you have top performers who are creating problems with the rest of the team, and the problems aren’t something you’ve been able to resolve – sometimes that top performer has to be the one to leave.

We’ve all seen someone who is great at what they do – and lousy at teamwork, or arrogant, or disrespectful, etc. Remember how you felt when they did whatever they did and management did nothing because they were a “top performer”. Now that you’re in charge, are you going to be that manager, or that owner?

No one is irreplaceable.

Read that again. No one is irreplaceable. That doesn’t mean losing them will be a pain-free experience. It may not be. Even so, the damage these people can cause often negates their performance. They can drag down the rest of your team, destroy morale, and prevent others with similar (or even better) skills from blooming because those people simply don’t want to deal with your top performer.

They reveal management’s true self. When the top performer (at least metrics-wise) does things no one else could get away with, it sends a message about what’s important to the company’s ownership: “It’s more important to bring x to the table than it is to adhere to the company’s culture, rules, whatever.

Similarly, it also sends the message that if you can do X better than anyone else, you can get away with anything. Is that really what you want to represent as a manager / owner?

Self-healing performance

A real top performer doesn’t bring a bunch of baggage to work and spray it all over their peers. They don’t aggravate, emasculate, or reduce the performance of the rest of the team. Just the opposite, in fact. A true top performer not only produces like no one else on your team, but they also make the team better by making each individual better.

They teach. They mentor. Their behavior makes people want to work with (or for) them. People trust them.

On teams where this isn’t how you’d describe your top performers, you’ll often find people and/or teams pulling in different directions – even when trying to achieve the same goal. At some point, your company is going to pay the price for that.

Be very careful who you hire and how you build teams. Don’t forget to be the kind of top performer every team member wants to work with.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Categories
Leadership Management

Entrepreneur, self-heal thyself

Have you ever gotten to the office in the morning and found a tool missing that you were planning on using that day? It creates some frustration borne in the inability to do what you’d been planning all along. For some, it might make your work more difficult to do, or delay the finish time. For others, the inability to use a certain tool might turn your day upside down.

Time is more than money

“Time is money”, you might think. “The inability to use this tool is costing me money”, you continue, and you’d be right. Now consider the cost when your entire team is unable to work. In some businesses, you might simply send the team home. While your team isn’t getting anything done, at least they aren’t racking up hourly pay. Small victories, I suppose – but every hour they’re down (even when off the clock), your backlog is growing. Customers who are depending on an on-time delivery based on work you intended to have done today might also find themselves in a pinch. It might be a pretty big deal.

It’s possible that the inability to use a tool in your business today could cost your customer(s) business. They might lose a strategic moment, a customer, or a valuable employee who simply decides they’ve had enough of the frustrating inability to do the work they love.

Do you want to be the vendor putting customers in that situation?

Customers aren’t the only ones

It feels like it might be worse if you do this to a customer. If the impact is solely internal and isn’t detectable by your customers, your team will just have to deal with it. Still, it has a cost. In frustration. In time. In “Really? this machine / tool / system is down AGAIN?”.

At some point, your team is going to lose patience. If the problem is bad enough or happens with enough frequency, you could lose key staff members. The folks you depend on most are likely to be the ones frustrated first. They’re the ones who may have the least tolerance for the working conditions caused by outages or downtime. They’ll perceive these issues as a lack of professionalism, or a lack of concern for their career or ability to make differential pay, or whatever. They simply won’t put up with it at some point.

Dial tones

Remember when you never doubted that when you picked up the phone, you’d hear a dial tone. If you’ve never had a landline, think of it as you do your expectation for electricity or running water. While those things do occasionally have problems, your expectation is that they will always be there.

That’s where notification of problems is helpful, but notification doesn’t make things significantly better. Imagine if you got a text message at 6:45am telling you that all the roads in and out of your town would be closed for 72 hours. Or a text that says “Sorry, no electricity until next Thursday“. Sure, it’s nice to know, but without a correction on the way, your day just got turned upside down.

If your internet is down too often and the vendors available to you are limited, are you going to choose one and simply tolerate the cost of downtime? Why not choose two or more who aren’t dependent on the same infrastructure? It may cost a bit more, but so does a few hours (or worse, days) of downtime.

Self-healing

Notification is old news. If a system can monitor systems, assets, working conditions (etc) and notify you of availability problems, why stop there? Why not enable these systems to correct the problem? Can your systems be setup to repair a failing systems, restart it, automatically dispatch service people, etc?

These issues should be part of your risk assessment. If power outages are a frequent thing, you’re need to weigh the cost / benefit of uninterruptible power supplies, a generator, or some other solution. If machinery / tool breakdowns are a significant impact, should you have spares on site? Can you work out an arrangement to have temporary replacements provided / rented? If there is a possibility of contention for rented resources, can you pay extra to make sure your needs take priority, get delivered first, etc?

Your team, your business partners, and your customers see your systems, equipment, & infrastructure as an extension of you. If they can’t depend on those things to be in place and working, they can’t depend on you.

Photo by Saad Salim on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Entrepreneurs Leadership Management

Are you holding on too tight?

Have you ever driven something to the post office because then you’d be absolutely sure it was put in the right box and actually mailed? Seemed rational at the time, right? The biggest turning point in a business owner’s life is when they trust someone enough to let them do something the business owner used to do. Yes, bigger than deciding to start the business itself. It’s one of the most difficult achievements for owners because it’s driven by fear, an emotion as primitive as there is. This fear convinces us that no one else can do the work as well as we can, even when the task is unimportant but necessary.

We have a bias toward the illusion and value of control at least in part because we did everything when there was no one else to do it. We remember the good old days when we built it alone in our basement, kitchen table, garage, etc. We did it all, thumped our chests, and drank from the skulls of our competitors. Our fond memories tell us we were in control of everything. The reality was more likely daily firefighting in an environment where we were alone and nothing was truly in our control.

Control isn’t the secret sauce

We think control is an important and essential element to building and growing a company. We think this because it’s all we know. When we’re the only one doing the work – control of everything is the default behavior model. Over time, “control of everything” stakes its claim as one of the essential ingredients of our success comes to us simply because we were the only employee. That doesn’t mean it’s the ideal.

Delegating work is one of the hardest and most valuable skills a business owner can develop. We usually won’t admit to ourselves that being bad at delegating (or not wanting to delegate) is a product of our desire to preserve our illusion of control.

We convince ourselves to stay small with thoughts like these:

  • I built this thing myself when I discovered others weren’t doing this, or weren’t doing it well.” (until I delegate to the right person with the right details, assuming this was ever true, and of course the task is so critical that I MUST be the only one to do it. Except it usually isn’t that critical, it’s simply work that must be done.)
  • No one knows what we went through.” (and?)
  • No one works like an owner.” (which is understandable – they aren’t owners).
  • It’s faster to do it myself than to teach you how to do it.” (Except for the second through nth times, assuming you taught it properly)
  • Others don’t care like I do.” (even though they might – worst case, they care enough or in their own way. Again, they aren’t owners.)
  • So and so’s work isn’t perfect.” (Neither is yours)
  • I can always do it better than anyone else.” (Are you sure? Is 10% better worth not getting to that truly critical work that is of a nature that you really are the only one who can do it?)
  • No one but me has the twenty seven years of experience that’s necessary to do this work well.” (It isn’t usually necessary, we just think it is. If we use that experience to guide our training & delegation, someone else *can* do it as well.)

Control has limits

How many items can you carry at one time? At some point, you’ll either stop adding items, or you’ll start dropping things. Our minds have a similarly finite ability to control things. That “control” includes managing people, projects, relationships, much less doing the work our role demands of us.

Your leadership role requires your full attention. Would you prefer to lead your company well, or lead it poorly because your mental and physical energy is consumed by less important tasks other people can do?

Holding on too tight stifles growth. We had to hold tight when we were working alone, but it’s a serious liability when you have a team. The best NFL quarterbacks throw or hand the ball to someone else most of the time, despite most of then having great running skills. Your children won’t learn to walk if you never let them out of your arms.

An executive who works with famous bands and professional athletes regularly asks his clients how their work changed once they “went pro”. In both groups, the most prevalent answer was “having the time and mental space to focus solely on our music / on-field performance and the wants / needs of our clientele, without the distraction of little things that used to consume their time.

The fear of letting go of the control that we think helped us succeed when it was just us – is exactly the thing that keeps us small.

Hiring my assistant Lorena is one of the best decisions I ever made.
But, many entrepreneurs don’t know how to go about hiring one. (Myself included! I got lucky with Lorena!)
Many entrepreneurs don’t know where to look. They don’t know what to pay.
They don’t know WHO to trust.
But most of all, they don’t know HOW to trust.
They don’t how to let go of tasks they really need to let go of. They don’t know how to let go of control.
I get that. We entrepreneurs have skin (and blood and hair and sweat) in the game. We can’t take our eye off the ball or things slide into chaos in a hiccup.

A comment from Perry Marshall

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Categories
Employees Management

Taking initiative… is it risky?

Remember the first time you convinced your kid to jump into the pool? Even though they trust you in a litany of other ways, you might have had to coax, sell, and maybe even coerce them to jump off the side into your arms. The child probably had thoughts like “What if mom or dad doesn’t catch me?“, “What if I go to the bottom?“, and “Everyone will make fun of me if I mess this up“, even if they would, you wouldn’t and they wouldn’t. Sometimes it took a lot of convincing to get them to make that leap. Maybe they were scared, but it’s likely they were more scared of the unknown outcomes they’d dreamed up, or the ones they hadn’t even thought of. The first time they take that leap, they’re simply unsure, despite your assurances that it’ll all be OK. They’ve probably never seen you pretend to miss their brother when he jumps into the pool – even if that’s a game you and the brother actively engage in.

Employees have similar fears, but they learn differently. They learn from the behaviors they see over time and from stories they’ve heard in the past. Perhaps even from stories told during on-boarding and training.

Scared to take initiative?

In some companies, showing initiative is lauded. However, if management says “We love when our teams take initiative!“” but only “show the love” when the initiative succeeds, fewer will risk taking initiative. People take initiative only when they know it’s safe to do so. I don’t mean safe in a “I can’t stand up for myself” way. We’re talking about job security.

If your team members have the tiniest inkling that taking initiative might cost them their job, many will avoid doing so. You might think employees who worry about their job security are snowflakes, wimps, etc. You might never have been called on the carpet for taking initiative and failing. You may never have known the fear of losing a job. Maybe you never had a manager that treated you poorly. Maybe you never had a job and always worked for yourself. What’s the employees’ perspective?

It’s possible your employees need their job so badly that they aren’t willing to risk losing it. Given that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, it’s clear lots of people can’t afford to lose their jobs. All of us probably know at least one person in that situation, and it’s clear that there are far more in that mode than we realize.

What does failure feel like?

How are failures are handled at your company? Do team members get “beat up” verbally, privately or publicly? Are snide comments made in group settings, like “guess we’ll never trust Sharon again“, even if said jokingly? Is the joke truly a joke, or is there some real meaning to those words? People notice when promotions (etc) go to people who perform steadily but never take initiative. If the comfort zone is where promotions & raises come from, would your people leave theirs?

If you want your folks to take initiative, show it. Make it clear who has this sort of leeway (and how much), whether they are “front line” staff members or executives. You may think your execs don’t worry about job security, but some almost certainly do as exec jobs are harder to find. Make sure they know the boundaries (or that there aren’t any) in areas where you want to see initiative taken. Give them examples of successes and failures. Show them how these efforts are handled, win or lose.

Be sure that failed efforts get attention in a way that won’t cause others to pull back on taking initiative. Thank those who stepped out and stepped up, regardless of outcome. Initiative taken with the intent of helping the company is a positive thing. This isn’t a participation trophy. It’s reminding everyone that taking initiative in the context of their roles is a desirable behavior, whether attempts succeed or fail.

After initiative is taken, deconstruct what happened. Let the team help diagnose it and suggest improvements. The failure discussion shouldn’t be about the person, it should be about the work & how to give initiative a better chance next time. Share the lessons learned from the wins *and* the losses so the next initiative has a better chance of success.

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Categories
Management

What’s your company really worth?

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

The cost of lost data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does ransomware do?

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

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

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

Small price to pay

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Employee Training Employees Management

Do they know they work for an airline?

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

We all have baggage

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

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

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

Expectations

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

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

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

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

Uncle!

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

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

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

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

Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

Categories
Productivity

Pay your future first

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

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

An infinite agenda

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

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

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

Time works a lot like profit

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

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

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

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

Pay the future first, time-wise

You already know this.

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

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

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

Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

Categories
Feedback Management

What signals does your business send?

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

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

Financial signals

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

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

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

Management signals

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

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

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

Is your business sending signals?

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

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

Photo by Xipu Li on Unsplash