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Why a business should be like a caterpillar

My parents have a caterpillar on their dining table.  It’s about 2½ inches long and made of bright green plastic.  When you wind it up, it crawls along and makes people laugh.

If you turn the caterpillar over, you find it’s made of a series of sections linked by a simple mechanism that consists mainly of a series of hooks and a rubber band.  This is tightened with a winder and then releases slowly, allowing the caterpillar to move along in a straight line.

The thing about the caterpillar is that, yes, it’s designed to be attractive so that people buy it.  But aesthetics aside, everything about it is designed to make it do what it’s designed for: to crawl across a flat surface and entertain people in the process (until it unwinds, when you just wind it up again).

The same applies to a complex machine like a car.  Essentially, it’s a piece of equipment designed to let people drive themselves, with or without passengers, from A to B.  Depending on the make and model, the car will have a certain amount of added luxury, but the basic purpose remains the same.

A business should be the same.  Every function in the business, every role, every individual person, should have a precise purpose and fit perfectly into the overall scheme of things.   If that happens, you can be sure that the business is 100% efficient: that nothing and nobody is doing anything to pull against the ultimate objective.So why is it that so few businesses take this approach?  These days, most businesses know that they should have a fully thought-out business strategy and a marketing strategy to support it.  But when it comes to operations, things are much less clearly defined.  As a business grows, individuals are given their own areas of responsibility.  Further growth and these areas of responsibility turn into departments.Typically, each department has its own goals, and this is where things can go seriously awry.  First, it’s very easy, for all the right reasons, to end up with a situation where the goals set for one department actually undermine those set for another.  Second, because departments often develop their own processes independently of what’s going on elsewhere in the business, they don’t necessarily fit into the overall scheme.  They may think they are doing a good job, but without proper consultation outside their own boundaries, they may end up doing the wrong things or not enough of the right ones.  Hence the typical comment, which I often hear, of “department x only does part of the job/doesn’t know what it’s doing/???”.It’s a really strange concept, when you think about it.  If you were building cars, you wouldn’t let all the different areas of the shop floor design their own components and fit them into the overall assembly in any way they chose?  You’d end up with wheels facing the wrong way or windscreen washers attached to the boot.  It simply doesn’t make sense.

For a business to succeed, once it’s established its business and marketing strategies, it needs an operations strategy that includes a specification of how the business will work as  a whole and what each and every department, activity and individual needs to contribute – and when.  Only after that can you design the individual processes and recruit people to carry them out.

In other words, a business should be like a product: designed as a complete assembly and then optimised to function as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Once that’s done, you’ll have a business that’s like my parents’ caterpillar.

The lure of the back-up

One of my favourite quotes, from management guru Peter Drucker  is: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”  It’s surprising how many people at all levels of business spend their time on work that actually makes a pitifully small contribution to their organisations’ goals. This is certainly true in the public sector, where I’ve seen the same topics discussed by several different committees which are actually composed of
the same managers.

Sadly, the same can also be said of private companies.  A university friend of mine spent her holidays working on the shop floor of a confectionery factory.  Her job was to inspect the filled boxes and make sure they contained the right kind of sweets (eg fruit sherbets, as it said on the packaging, and not chocolate fudge from the next production line) and met the weight requirements.  She completed a form and handed it to the supervisor.

“What do you do with all these forms?” she asked one day.
“They go in that cupboard,” came the answer.
“Oh, and what happens then?”
“We just keep them!”

Being a nosey sort, she opened the cupboard door and out  fell literally years’ worth of paperwork.  It had never been looked at.

“Why on earth do you carry on doing this if you do nothing with it?” she asked.
“Well,” came the answer, “We’ve always done it like  this. Management likes it to be there just in case.”

We are all guilty of “just in case” scenarios.  I’ve just been going looking through my filing at home and am horrified at the amount of “just in case” paperwork I’ve kept.  The last time I had a really good clearout seems to have been 1994.

Think of the money that businesses – and public sector organisations, come to that – could save if they thought through their processes and minimised the amount of just-in-case bureaucracy that is undertaken in their names.  This includes departments each making and keeping their own documentation on aspects of the same thing, which invariably means some duplication of the information they store.

Sometimes, it takes very little massaging of an organisation’s processes to make big savings.  Yet rather than look inwards and do a simple overlap analysis –
effectively the opposite of a gap analysis – businesses put more and more pressure on their sales and marketing departments.  They see this as growing the business: actually, as costs increase, they need to make more and more money just to pay the bills.  And if the costs are unnecessarily high to begin with, the poor sales team has to work very hard before the company can even start to achieve its goals.

Successive governments try to cut public sector costs by prioritising services and services within services, and allocating less money to the unfavoured few.  An example is my own local authority, which has taken some very strange decisions in an attempt to “prioritise” its spending, such as stopping plastics recycling collections, introducing 7-day parking charges into an already run-down city centre and leasing out the only building it owns that is big enough to hold public events.

Far better to take a top-down approach and get managers  talking to each other.  That way, they are much more likely to work together and find a solution that cuts their bureaucracy, and therefore the operations overload.  At the end of the day, to quote Peter Drucker again, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer”, and you can’t do that if your staff are too busy filling in forms!

My new year resolution: make the most of my time


My new year resolution (well, one of them) is to make all my time matter in 2012.  In other words, I’m trying hard to avoid finding excuses to fiddle around.  On my banned list are:

  • Moving papers from one side of my desk to the other on the pretext of prioritising them
  • Checking my emails more than once an hour
  • Googling for the answer to any and every question, whether or not I need to know
  • Spending hours searching for new friends and acquaintances or checking out the latest comments on Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter

From now on, if not confined to the bin, these activities will be limited to the least amount of time I can get away with – and the first will definitely be off the agenda altogether, if at all possible.

Why, you may ask, is a business operations consultant doing any of this anyway?  Fair question.  But like everyone else, I’m only human.  On the one hand, I find myself wondering where to start on the mountain of tasks confronting me first thing in the morning; on the other, I start off enthusiastically, but either something goes wrong or I burn out.  Either way, I wind up staring out of the window or getting side-tracked, which can go on for hours.

The fact is, it can be difficult to get started in the morning, and it’s certainly inadvisable to try and work for too long without a break.

So here are my tips for a productive day:

  1. Write yourself a list of things that need to be done during the day and the approximate amount of time each is likely to take (if you want to get ahead, can do this the previous evening  - it’ll help you off to a kick start in the morning).
  2. Prioritise them and organise the list with the most important things at the top.
  3. Put a couple of quick items from the top five priorities at the very top of the list.
  4. Allocate approximate times to each item.

So far so good: it’s more or less what I’ve done in the past.  It may seem a bit pedantic, but at least I know whether I’m asking too much of myself and can really decide what I can leave until tomorrow.  The trouble is that it doesn’t provide any leeway for things going over time, people phoning up or other things cropping up.

So here’s what I’m going to do this year.  First, I’m going to build blogging, Linked-In, Facebook and Twitter time into the day, but for no more than half an hour a day.  Second, I’m only going to allocate 40 minutes of every hour to working.  That way, there will be plenty of flexibility – and, most importantly, if I finish what I’ve set myself to do within the time, I can have some “free” R&R.  So I no longer need to feel guilty spending a few minutes chatting to a colleague about non-work things, staring out of the window at the birds feeding on the bird table, or even to the odd game of Freecell or cup of tea.  Sounds perfect!