Friday, July 18th, 2008

Are you kidding me? 2,630,000 hits in .07 seconds

“Jack of all trades, master of none” turns up more than 2 ½ million hits with a Google search. The phrase is the title of a book, a CD, a blog, a TV sitcom, and I’m certain a number of other things.

Thinking about this old standby as it relates to small independent family business owners led me to the realization that being a jack of all trades is nothing to brag about. Remember the second half of the saying: “master of none.”

Haven’t you often wondered why you always feel one step ahead of the customer, the bill collector, the janitor, and one step behind a good night’s rest?

You should read The Technician’s Addiction. Any addict will tell you the cold turkey method of habit changing is painful at best, and deadly at its worst. The same is true for those addicted to small business ownership.

I know because I’m recovering daily from the illness.

Might I suggest you check yourself into recovery and let the game of life come to you?

Constant work in the trenches doesn’t make you a real business owner; it makes you, as the story goes, a dull-boy (or girl!)

What’s the boldest, most frightening move that a business owner can make? It is to stop being the “answer guy.”

It’s time to realize that in order to do necessary strategic work, you’ll have to break your addiction. Addicts often spend weeks away from the office, focused completely on resolving life’s most important problems.

I’ll bet that after you go through the DT’s of withdraw, you’ll realize your employees’ potential, be able to embrace your financial challenges, have a clear vision of your market, re-define productivity, and know for the first time in a long time the business you are really in.

Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly these promises are being fulfilled among us every day.

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Monday, May 26th, 2008

Refiner’s Fire and Change

When your pain exceeds your fear of risk, you will begin the process of change.

At a key crossroads of your career, ownership must ask, “Why does every day feel like a battle? What causes my frustration to occur? What standard is missing (or isn’t being followed) that is allowing these frustrations to keep happening?” As the owner you’ll need to stick to searching for the cause of the problem, rather than fixing blame. This will keep you on the path toward building a system to predictably solve problems. If not, you’ll continue to be reactive and the frustrations may temporarily subside… but they will always return.

When you feel frustrated, stop and notice what is going on in the business. Consider exactly the circumstances and write them down.

Do this for few weeks, reflect on you notes and deal with them strategically. The common themes will become clearly visible, such as multiple occurrences in one department, sales trouble at the beginning of the week, issues with particular collections or vendors, etc. Once common problems are identified and analyzed, it becomes easier to pinpoint what has to change and to document standard procedures to deal with the issues.

Awareness of system problems will help you prioritize change and develop systemic solutions, versus blaming people and patching with short-term fixes. The most important element of change management is complete focus on the outcome. This happens in three phases.

The first is melting the company down to overcome the existing mindset. This is the beginning of cultural transition that must take place. Inertia and defensiveness have to be worked out of the system and the people. In phase two, everyone is “dazed and confused.” They are aware that the old model is being transformed but there is no clarity as to what the new model might actually look like. The third phase happens only after the impurity of the meltdown has been cleared. The dross has been removed, so to speak, and the new culture and mindset will begin to crystallize and daily organizational life returns.

Look closely at what is causing you pain. Assuming you’ve hired decent people, stay focused on systems and not people as the cause of problems. Otherwise, you may begin to feel that your business is stagnating, and so are you. “Sales are down, deliveries are late, quality is bad… and so is my patience from yelling at the staff. Management shouldn’t have to look over everyone’s shoulder all the time,” you lament.

If you have to be there every single day to oversee every little thing, then your people don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing.

This is classic managing by assumption: leadership assumes that each employee knows what to do, while they assume someone else is responsible, and, ultimately, all accountability falls with a thud at the feet of the owner. Remember what ASSUME stands for.

The flip side of management is agreement and exception, when management and employee understand and agree on the terms regarding the work that will be done in position or on a specific project and communicate any exceptions.

The agreement component requires the employee to sign a written job description accepting full responsibility for performing the required work and achieving results. Ownership agrees to provide the employee with resources. The manager can then assume that all work will be done as agreed. The goal, besides obtaining the stated results, is to avoid unpleasant surprises.

This sounds nice in theory, but the reality is often different. There are breakdowns and wrong orders, missing in action employees and any number of retail snafus. And by damned will you be caught unaware.

When your staff has agreed to the performance standards in advance, they must let you know the moment they realize a task won’t be completed on time, whatever the reason. This is often handled by an exception report that states the original commitment, the reason the commitment won’t be met, and a proposed alternative solution.

Because not all retail situations deal with issues of national security, knowing in advance that something isn’t going to happen allows time to make adjustments before it becomes a crisis. This keeps management in control to decide whether the reason for missing the deadline and the alternative solutions are acceptable. Regardless of the outcome, communication channels are kept open, chain of command is in place, and management maintains the ability to act strategically. These are all things ownership is truly looking for.

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