You’re only as strong as the weakest link

There’s a TV game show called The Weakest Link, in which the contestants have to answer questions in teams. Each successive correct answer adds to the prize money. An incorrect answer wipes out all the prize money that hasn’t been ‘banked’, and the person answering incorrectly becomes ‘the Weakest Link’.

The concept that you are only as strong as the weakest link is highly applicable to businesses of all shapes and sizes. Look at these examples –

  • A business that’s brilliant at marketing, but no good at selling, will be held back by that weakness
  • A business that’s brilliant at selling, but no good at marketing, will have fewer opportunities to sell
  • A business that’s deficient when it comes to execution or operations might be excellent at selling – but will be held back by its deficiency

The temptation is to focus on the things you’re good at. Doing that generates a sense of satisfaction, a comforting glow, because a job was well done or a process completed efficiently.

The problem with this approach is that you’re not addressing the weakness. Indeed, you may even make it more obvious. Just imagine – you are poor at delivery and your sales team generate another raft of orders. You’ve just created another opportunity to disappoint your customers and prospects.

Your focus should, of course, be on the weakness. But that’s more difficult to do.  You may be aware that the weak area isn’t working well, but you may not know how to fix it. Sometimes you might not even know where to start fixing it.

If that’s the case, it may be time to get external assistance. You could get help from business friends or perhaps from a peer group.  You might even consider getting advice from an external advisor, but they’d need a clear brief.

Take time to recognise the weakness in your business. Invest time and energy to bring this area up to the same standard as other areas of your business, already performing to high standards. You’ll be amazed at the difference that will make.

Deadlines are not optional

A word that’s often misused by businesses is ‘deadline’.

The dictionary definitions of a deadline are:

1) A line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot

2 a) A date or time before which something must be done

2 b) The time after which copy is not accepted for a particular issue of a publication

Definition 2 (a) ‘A date or time before which something must be done’ is the one that’s applicable to business (unless you are a publisher, in which case 2 (b) would also apply).

I have often observed that people’s attitude towards deadlines is such that they overlook the word ‘must’, as detailed in the dictionary definition. The ‘deadline’ is treated as a target date, with few or no consequences being imposed for missing that target.

Incidentally, I would not remotely suggest that the consequence for missing a deadline, or overstepping one, should be shooting someone – although I must confess, I have been tempted!

If there are no consequences for missing a deadline, it’s very likely that people will develop an attitude indicating that deadlines don’t matter or are unimportant at best. So shipment dates are missed and projects are delayed. One of the oldest adages says, ‘Time is Money’. And time wasted is money wasted.

Deadlines attaching to projects are particularly important. Projects are often multi-stage, with phases that rely upon the results or output from the previous stage. If you miss the deadline for one stage, everything after that stage will also be delayed.

Changing people’s attitude towards deadlines is vitally important. This will take time but involves only two steps.

The first step is to identify who owns the project or process: who has ultimate responsibility for the deadline?

However, there are many situations where accountability isn’t clear – it may be shared, with no single manager owning the process. This is messy and can lead to a blame culture in which ‘It’s someone else’s fault’ is the underlying theme. Someone has to take ownership. They are then empowered to hold the other contributors to account.

The second step is to hold the owner to account. That doesn’t mean a public roasting is required.  Just maintain the emphasis on the deadline.

The past is the past so focus on the future

Many of the circumstances that existed before the Christmas break will still be the same now the New Year is getting underway. For example –

  • You’ll probably be interacting with the same people
  • The business will face many of the same opportunities and challenges
  • You will react in the same way

Old habits die hard!

That makes it really easy to feel as though nothing has changed. You’ll get dragged back into the same old things. There’s a cynical saying that goes, ‘Same s**t, different day’.

All those wonderful plans you’ve been thinking about, all the great things you were planning to do at the start of the New Year are likely to get overwhelmed by the wave of history. You get dragged back into day-to-day battles and your plans sit in the drawer gathering dust.

In a year’s time, you’ll probably reflect on how little progress you’ve made towards your goals and feel really frustrated.

Or else you can take proactive steps today to break with the past, leave all those old habits behind and focus on new plans and opportunities.

To do this is easier said than done – but that’s usually true of anything worthwhile!

A tip that will help – and can be applied to any change project – is to set short-term goals and deadlines. These will act as milestones or staging posts towards your longer-term plan.

Hold frequent progress meetings. Try to avoid calling them ‘review’ meetings, as that tends to imply you’re reviewing what has happened, rather than focusing on the development of what has yet to happen.

Remind everyone involved that you can’t change the past.  You can, and should, learn from the past; but change only happens by looking to the future.

You can’t just choose the good bits

During the festive season I have mixed emotions. On the plus side, there’s the excitement and pleasure of family get-togethers and the happy times they bring. The negative side is trying to avoid the Christmas shopping crowds, corny canned music and over-hyped Christmas deals. And please don’t get me started on the ‘friends and family’ bulletins that some people insist on sending, telling you how wonderful their year/vacation/kids are or have been!

Putting the Grinch aside and focusing on the cheerful is my way forward.

But it’s important to understand that good things are often accompanied by things that are not so good, or even downright bad. This is true in business as well.

Having a leadership position allows you to enjoy many benefits – and I’m not talking about financial reward. These include opportunities to make a difference and help the team who work with you. There can be opportunities to hire or promote deserving individuals. You often get to travel, meet customers and suppliers, and attend events and conferences.

Those benefits are counterbalanced by the less pleasant aspects and responsibilities of leadership. If you’re responsible for hiring people, you’re also responsible for making sure they are performing to the required standard and, if necessary, firing those who don’t make the grade.

You may have opportunities to meet and greet customers, but you’re also responsible for managing those relationships when customers are less happy with you!

My method for dealing with the Christmas negatives – ignoring them and focusing on the good stuff – won’t wash in business. When you’re in business, you need to be able to take the good with the bad, deal with the unpleasant as well as the pleasant, and accept responsibility as well as authority.

You can’t just choose the good bits.

As simple as it can be

Simplifying things is a challenge for any business. If you have a simple process, people can follow it without making mistakes. If you have a complex process, mistakes can and will be made.

I find that quality management systems often appear to be over-complicated. There’s a theory that goes something like this –

‘The system is important. Important things are complex and difficult to understand, so they are written in complex language.’

If you add to this theory the individual who overplays the difficulty of their job, you have the quality management system that becomes a bureaucratic nightmare  –  otherwise known as the business prevention system.

Those are the systems that people hate. They are seen as restrictive, serving only to enforce compliance.

One recent experience with a customer – a very large organisation – illustrates this. They were returning a unit to us for some additional development work, but the unit had been purchased as a standard unit, not for development.

We’d agreed in April to do some further work. In July, after several emails, we got a reply from someone in the customer’s team, a frustrated engineer. He told us –

‘I can’t send you the unit. It’s sitting on my desk, but it’s so far into our systems that I can’t work out  how to send it back to you.’

I’m sure these were exceptional circumstances, but it’s an example of a system hindering the business.

However, if you can take a step back and look at the reasons why particular processes or procedures exist, you may find some nuggets of value.

A procedure or process often came into existence to resolve a problem. Over time, extra layers were added. The result is that you end up with a complex mess.

When you set about simplifying a process or procedure, start by asking, ‘Why does this exist?’ and create a simple process to deal with just that: ‘Why?’.

If that’s not possible, perhaps the process is trying to do too much?

You’re likely to find examples of trying to do too much when you examine  complex assembly processes. We have processes that are extremely complex – one product we analysed recently had 174 parts. Any process that tries to capture such a large assembly of parts is going to be complex.

However, it’s possible to view that product as a number of different sub-assemblies. Each of those can still be regarded as complex, but there are probably only 30 parts in the most complex of them.

We have an overall procedure in place to assemble this product, but the lead procedure is simple and refers to the sub-assembly procedures, which in turn are also simple.

Making a process or procedure simple isn’t easy – but it can add great value to your business.

Short-term pain for long-term gain

There are many occasions when you need to accept short-term pain if you want long-term gain. One of the most clear-cut of these surely relates to training.

From a business leader’s perspective, focused on the short term, time spent on training is not productive. I run a business that operates in design, manufacturing and assembly. Having someone spend time on an external training course is bad enough – we lose 10% of our workforce to apprenticeships one day a week during term time. But on-the-job training often means that two people – the trainee and the trainer – aren’t being productive. We still have to pay their wages and salaries. We even pay bonuses for training people.

Training is expensive. But it’s an investment.

If we don’t train our people, there are unwelcome consequences.

Our personnel aren’t as competent as we would wish. The consequences of this tend to emerge over time – someone leaves, or is taken ill, and you realise that a particular skill-set went when they left. This represents a single point of failure – because you failed to train anyone else in those skills.

Training can reduce the likelihood of such situations arising but, in my view, the motivational aspects are even more important. The company is seen to invest in the long-term future of its trainees. That motivates the trainees as they acquire skills we need for the future. This has a knock-on effect: 10% of my workforce are being trained and developed externally, so they feel motivated, and their motivation rubs off on others.

And there’s another effect. When experienced, senior members of the team (a.k.a. the grumpy old men!) get involved in training junior members, they may grump and moan about doing it, but when their trainees achieve things that please them, they take great pride in the accomplishment.

When we take someone on, they’re paid a salary and, of course, there are all the ancillary costs too. If you look at those costs over a five-year period, you’re going to be spending well over £100k. What’s a sensible percentage of this to spend on training?  You’ll be surprised how little training actually costs when you take a longer-term view.

 

Are you afraid of the voters?

Politics is in turmoil. Some really divisive issues and equally divisive politicians are making headlines around the world.

Much of the recent press coverage refers to a lack of trust, while some politicians are telling us they don’t trust journalists. Fake news, anyone?

This lack of trust leads to politicians avoiding disclosure, fearing censure from voters. They get caught hiding things, so voters trust them even less. The voters think politicians have their own agenda and undisclosed motives; the politicians think voters and the media are out to ‘get them’.

This destroys any chance of cross-party cooperation. Anyone who crosses the line will be branded as a traitor, no matter how important the matter may be. Major issues such as healthcare or gun law in the US and, of course, Brexit in the UK are all topics where politicians of different parties hold similar views but can’t or won’t cooperate with one another.

This same theme of trust – or the lack of it – can be seen in businesses, everywhere.

Many businesses suffer from the ‘silo syndrome’, where functions and departments don’t cooperate but follow their own agendas. That can lead to conflicting messages being delivered to customers and suppliers!

Equally common is the division between ‘them’ and ‘us’, with management on one side of the fence and the workforce on the other.

Symptoms of a ‘them and us’ culture operating become apparent when there is a workforce that seems disengaged, a lack of innovation in the business, and often a clock-watching culture in place.

The good news is that, with a little bit of bravery being shown by the leaders of the business, these challenges can be dealt with.

The starting point is communication. If you, as leader, explain your decisions and, even better, share your objectives for the business with the workforce, you can remove the barrier. It won’t come down all at once, and it will take continuous effort to keep it down. But, if you communicate and do these things, you’ll get a workforce that’s engaged and can take your business to another level.

Don’t be afraid of the voters.

What does success look like?

For some people, success means having a fancy car or a big house.  For others, it might be finding a perfect balance between work and home life.  For yet others, it might mean being able to afford exotic holidays.

People are different and are motivated by different rewards.

When you’re leading a team, one huge challenge  is identifying what motivates the different individuals within that team.

A bigger challenge is being able to communicate clearly how an individual will know what success means for their job or area of responsibility.

Many years ago, I surveyed the staff of a somewhat dysfunctional organisation.  One of my questions was, ‘When doing your job, how would you know when you’ve been successful?’

Most could not answer this. They had not thought about the real purpose of their role, why their job existed, or how the company would benefit from employing them.

There needs to be a reason for the existence of every role in a company and there needs to be an expected outcome for each role. That’s how success can be measured – that’s where the company receives its return for the wages and salaries it’s investing.

A useful exercise that’s often set for people in start-ups or small businesses aiming to grow is to get them to draw the organisation chart they feel will be appropriate to their business in (say) 5 years’ time. This exercise helps business leaders define the roles a business needs to foster growth – rather than simply hiring someone else to do more of the same.

What’s more difficult, but probably even more valuable, is to apply a similar discipline to existing businesses. Break the business down and look at each area:  Why does this function exist? What’s the purpose of this role? What does success look like in this job?

That can easily lead to a realisation that an organisation is shaped around the skills and personalities within it. How the organisation has developed is not the culmination of premeditated design but the result of happenstance and unplanned growth.

Those same factors could well explain what’s preventing further growth. That’s why it’s important to ask defining questions – identify goals for each role and what success in achieving them looks like, then consider how they align with the goals of the organisation as a whole.

Annihilate your ego!

One characteristic that seems to be common to leaders who get the best from their teams is their apparent lack of ego. There are leaders who undoubtedly have giant-size egos, but don’t confuse showmanship and pizazz with egoism. There are many who play the showman but, underneath all the showbiz, they are focused on leading and promoting teams.

If you don’t watch out for the ego, it can trip you up.

Allow your ego to get in the way and you will claim more credit than is due to you. That in turn diminishes the efforts of the team and will be demotivating for them.

Your ego can also get in the way when you make a mistake. We all make mistakes – as the old saying goes, the person who never made a mistake never made anything – but your ego can prevent you from recognising a mistake. This can mean the consequences of the mistake become more serious: let’s say you took a wrong turn, but instead of realising the direction you had taken was wrong straight away, you continued down the wrong path, eventually seeing your mistake and having to retrace your steps a great distance.

That same ego will make the team hesitate to suggest you might be wrong!

The ego is also at work when things go wrong – it will be somebody else’s fault, not yours.

But what happens if you annihilate your ego?

You’ll praise the efforts of your team – not just to their faces, but publicly.

You’ll spot those mistakes faster.

Your team will find you more approachable and they’ll make more suggestions.

So how do you get started? Simply try saying ‘we’ and ‘us’ at every opportunity. Every time you say ‘I’ you’re in danger of letting the ego take over again. The only time you should use ‘I’ is when you’re taking the blame or assuming ownership of a mistake or failure.

The results will be noticeable: you’ll find that you get given more credit – both by your team and by your customers. You’ll be basking in reflected glory!

 

Business is not like a game of chess

There are many instructive parallels between playing a game of chess and the challenges of running a business.

To win in chess, you have to plan your attack carefully and anticipate your opponent’s moves. While you are attacking, you must not neglect your defence. Moving a piece into an attacking position but allowing it to become isolated is likely to result in the loss of that piece.

Many business leaders fall into the trap of thinking that their customer is their opponent.  That’s not the way to achieve success!

Chess is usually a game for single players with one opponent, but in business you don’t have just one opponent. You probably have many.  There are plenty of people who could steal the pieces you have left isolated. These pieces equate to the customers you have neglected and left alone.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though, because business is anything but a single-player game. Not only do you have your own team, you can call on lots of other people who will help you to succeed. They include your suppliers, your partners – even your customers.

Go back to the basic reason why your business exists, then look at it from the customer’s perspective – not your own. You will realise that your business is, in some way, enabling your customer to solve a problem or achieve something.

Take this concept of ‘solving a problem’ and use it to sharpen and hone everything you do. Look to remove all the things which don’t add to that singularity of purpose.

Doing this rigorously will make your customer’s life much easier.

It will make selling to new customers – who have similar problems – much easier.

It will make attracting new customers much easier.

It may even save you money and time.

It’s not like a game of chess. It’s much simpler than that. Just focus on doing the right thing to solve your customer’s problems.