Using systems to overcome small business bottlenecks

If you are like most small business owners, you frequently experience frustrations and/ or undesired results. Employees who do not always perform as you would like, deliveries that arrive late, payments that aren’t collected promptly, poor quality work, and a myriad of other problems can torment the owner of a small business.

Most problems in a small business result from 1 of 2 causes: a lack of systems and procedures, or the procedure was not properly followed.

Consistent actions lead to consistent results. If we know the results we desire, and the actions that will lead to that result, successful performance is simply a matter of following the proper course of action. In other words, if A causes B, and we want B, then we should do A. If cooking the burger for 4 minutes on each side cooks it perfectly, then we should always cook a patty for 4 minutes on each side.

This may seem like an over simplification, but the truth is, actions have consequences. And those consequences are usually predictable. Thus, our business can achieve consistent, desirable results if we consistently take the proper actions.

Undesired results are a signal that we have not taken the appropriate actions. When we experience a problem or frustration within our business, we should view it as an opportunity to correct or implement a system. If customers are complaining that their burgers are undercooked, it is very likely that we didn’t cook it for 4 minutes on each side.

By developing and implementing systems in our business, we will consistently take the actions that produce the results we desire. If we want to prepare the perfect burger, then we must cook the meat properly, toast the bun, and assemble the ingredients in the proper amounts and in the proper order. If we want to operate a successful business we must similarly assemble its “ingredients”. Systems provide the guidelines and the standards for doing so.

The technician and the businessman

Many small business owners believe that technical competency will translate to business success. While some level of technical competency is certainly necessary, it seldom ensures success.

A business owner may be good at fixing computers, baking pies, or recommending a travel itinerary. But there is much more to running a business than providing a product or service. A business involves accounting and finance, marketing and sales, production and delivery, management and administration, and much more. A business requires a broad skill set to function successfully.

Certainly these skills can be hired. An accountant can be hired to do the books. A graphics designer can be hired to design marketing materials. A salesman can be hired to generate revenues. An office manager can be hired to oversee administrative functions. But many, if not most, small business owners wear all of these hats and more.

Regardless, the owner must possess some level of knowledge regarding these areas. He is the final decision maker, and without a reasonable level of knowledge he will be unable to make competent decisions. In other words, his technical expertise will not help him when it comes to making decisions regarding finance or marketing.

The failure to obtain this skill set—whether through personal education or by hiring others—is the downfall of many small businesses.

To use a football analogy, the business owner is the head coach. The greatest head coach is not an expert in every aspect of his sport. His primary job is to hire experts, delegate responsibilities, and then organize the entire operation. He is responsible for the final decision making, but he does not need to micromanage every aspect of the team.

This is true even of those football coaches who were stellar players, that is, superb technicians. An all-star football player will not necessarily make a good coach—the two roles require vastly different skill sets.

The coach must be able to organize, teach, encourage, and lead. The same is true of a business owner.

Overcoming fear of change

As business owners we are often eager to improve the operations of our business. Unfortunately, we often meet resistance from employees. This presents a challenge to the owner who wishes to improve his business. If employees will not make changes in their behavior, improvements are very difficult.

The key to overcoming the employee’s fear of change is to create an incentive for them. While money is not the only incentive, it is usually a powerful motivator. If the desired changes will result in increased profits, a bonus system to share those additional profits with employees can help them overcome their fears.

Enlisting employees in the improvement process can also help. When an owner acts like a benevolent dictator and imposes change on the employees, they often resist. However, if the employees are involved in the process of identifying and planning the needed changes–through a process like Total Quality Meetings–they are much more likely to “buy in”.

Involving employees can begin by simply asking them what improvements they would like to see. Ask them what frustrations they experience in their job. The answers may surprise you, and prove enlightening. Too often owners view the business only from their perspective. Employees however, often have a much different perspective.

Owners typically embrace change much more readily than employees. Consequently, the owner must address the concerns and fears of his employees. He must help them see the benefits of change. If he can make them willing participants the changes will be far more effective.

At the same time, the owner must set realistic expectations regarding the speed and extent of change. In this regard, slow but steady change is ultimately more effective than rapid change that is quickly abandoned.

Employees are a part of your team. If you want them to perform at their best, help them help you. If you work together they will be much more willing to help you build the business you want to own.

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