What if your team doesn’t win the Game?

Incentives. Games. Contests.

Most companies use games and contests to get employees fired up and to drive results. Who hasn’t run a sales contest or offered an award for perfect attendance?

At the Great Game of Business, we call these “Mini-Games.” They’re short term, intensely focused, rapid improvement campaigns that affect a change, correct a weakness or pursue an opportunity. Like any game or sport, there is a goal, a scoreboard and a reward for winning.

A well-designed business game can be energizing, fun, educational and exciting. But what if you get to the end and you miss the target?

A business owner I work with was recently in that very situation. His particular game had the goal of reducing utility costs over a 90 day period, which didn’t happen. To avoid his team’s disappointment, he desperately wanted to pay the reward anyway and asked me for advice. My feedback wasn’t necessarily what he wanted to hear but in the end he agreed with the advice, which follows:

I had to tell him that if you give the prize anyway you’re training the team that a miss is as good as a win, and to expect something every time you run a game regardless of the outcome.

It’s better to have a post-game meeting, review the results together and have a discussion about what went right and what went wrong (if anything – just because you didn’t win doesn’t mean something went wrong.) It is possible the target was too optimistic, and you can discuss that.

Did everyone really take the game seriously and do everything possible to reduce utilities? Did they encourage each other to turn off lights, close windows, etc.? If not, it should not be a surprise that we didn’t win.

If someone suggests “It’s not our fault we didn’t win so we should get the prize anyway”, that’s an opportunity to talk about the fact that it’s also not the company’s fault. But in reality, it’s not about “fault.” It’s about creating a win for the company AND a win for the employees. Let’s learn together from this experience and do another game, perhaps on another target or maybe go after utilities again.

My advice to him – and to all businesses embarking on using games and contests – is – with the first few games, pick easy targets to virtually ensure a Win. Don’t share that info with the folks, but do it to let them get the feel of a win under their belts and to show you’re serious about awarding the prizes when they win. Every time, do a post-game analysis with the team: What did we learn? What can we continue to do better going forward, even after the game is over? If everyone involved doesn’t learn something about business from the experience, you’re leaving money on the table.

Get your game on and improve your business!

Back to Business Basics

Another year has already come and gone? Really?

As you wrap up this year and prepare to start another, consider using the following list to guide your business activities. If you want to consider this a “New Year’s Resolution” list, that’s fine as long as you actually turn this list into reality and stick with it all year.

Set business goals, and have plans for achieving those goals.

Establish written plans for achieving your business goals. Be sure to assign accountability using the following formula: WHO will do WHAT by WHEN?

Run your business by the numbers.

It’s important to regularly review your progress and results. Your review should include:

  • Sales, broken down by product/service or customer segments
  • Gross profit, broken down the same way as sales
  • Major expense line items
  • Net profit
  • Cash balance and cash flow
  • Accounts Receivable, if you extend payment terms to your customers

Look at both month-to-date and year-to-date results, and compare to the same period from the prior year. It’s also a good idea to look at your P&L statement numbers as a percent of total sales. This allows you to spot trends early.

Use time wisely.

Your time is one of your most precious resources, so be sure you’re making the best use of it. Use a calendar and set aside time for planning and review.

“Hire hard” so you can “manage easy.”

Spend as much time as needed with the recruiting and interviewing process to build a strong team who will grow with your company.

Spend quality time with employees.

Rather than waiting a year to discuss performance with your team members, regularly visit with them informally. Get to know their talents, strengths and weaknesses. Praise them for their good work, and coach them when you see opportunities for improvement.

Delegate.

You can’t do it all yourself, so don’t even try. Continually ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing right now the best use of my time and talents?” If not, find a way to delegate those activities to employees or outside vendors.

Spend quality time with customers.

Find out the answers to these two questions:

  1. What’s important to you? (Quality, customer service, product mix, etc.)
  2. How are we doing in those areas?

Develop relationships with your customers.

Find ways to stand out from your competitors and to become the supplier of choice.

Make smart use of technology.

Technology has become so affordable and easy to use that even the smallest home-based business can afford to appear bigger and to level the playing field with larger competitors. Get tech savvy to reduce costs, improve communication, increase productivity and enhance customer service.

Create a winning culture.

Get everyone in your company on the success bandwagon, starting with you. Think and talk about growing, pushing through challenges and achieving goals. Be winners.

Implement these common-sense business practices, and go make the new year your best yet.

An out-of-this-world profit improvement

“The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail.”
– Charles Swindoll

An alien spacecraft lands near a mobile home park (as alien spacecraft are prone to do) and abducts an earthling. As the extraterrestrials examine the human, they’re fascinated that one toe on each foot is much bigger than the other four.

Why aren’t we earthlings similarly surprised when we see another person’s foot for the first time? Because it’s the norm. Like water to a fish. Ho-hum.

And so it is with many of the line items on your financial statements. We take some things for granted, and look right past them. Sometimes, it’s familiarity. Maybe you’re used to glossing over training expense because you always spend less than you budgeted. Sometimes it’s your perceived lack of influence over certain numbers. No matter what you’ve tried, that one number “is what it is.”

One of the first steps to improving your financial results is to start looking at each line item as if you were seeing it for the first time. Letting them become ho-hum is a formula for decline.

Of course, every section of your income statement is an opportunity for improvement, but here we’ll focus on your Cost of Goods Sold, or COGS.

COGS is defined as the direct costs that go into creating the products or services that a company sells. For example, an automaker’s COGS would include the material costs that go into making the car plus the labor costs used to build it. The other costs that don’t directly go into producing cars, like office supplies, support staff and utilities, are considered Overhead Expenses … another topic for another day.

If you’re a service-only business and don’t sell goods, you probably call it Cost of Sales, or COS. Even if your P&L just shows revenue less expenses, and doesn’t include a COS section, you really do have COS … it’s the direct labor cost associated with your billable staff.

Some great reasons to mine your COGS for improvement opportunities:

  • The improvements fall right to the bottom line. Grow profits using existing sales!
  • It’s one of the biggest costs on your P&L.
  • It’s easy to let COGS become “ho-hum” and thus slowly grow as a percent of sales over time.
  • If there’s a labor component, the failings and shortcomings common to all of us earthlings represent improvement opportunities. Think about wasted time, wasted material, lost productivity, inefficiencies, errors and reworks.
  • Most improvements to COGS have staying power. Negotiate a better price or improve efficiency, and you can likely enjoy that improvement for some time – maybe for years.

Do a detailed analysis of every line item in your COGS, and you might be rewarded with an out-of-this-world profit improvement.

Mistakes are opportunities

Every company makes mistakes. That’s one thing all businesses have in common.

That said, each mistake is an opportunity – especially if the error affects a customer.

Some companies blame anyone or anything but themselves. They may or may not correct it. They may or may not apologize. Some act like they’re doing you a favor if you ask them to correct their own goof-up.

A culture of blame exists in these firms. Their mantra is “It’s not my fault.”

Other companies immediately correct mistakes – especially for customers. They apologize. They might even offer the customer something extra to show they’re serious.

A culture of accountability exists in these firms. Their mantra is “Fix the problem to the complete satisfaction of the customer.”

Clearly, the second type of company is where you want to be. But, consider kicking it up a notch to turn costly mistakes into profitable occurrences.

Let’s say Bob’s Computer Service gets a call from their customer Big Company, Inc., telling them that Bob’s driver delivered their repaired monitor but they didn’t get their power cord back.

Bob’s has a culture of accountability, so the rep apologizes, arranges to have it delivered right away and offers a discount to make up for the aggravation. So far, so good. Even though the rep did everything right, most of Bob’s competitors would do the same, so it was good, but not extraordinary.

What if Bob’s takes the time to find and fix the root cause of the error? Now they begin to separate themselves from their competitors who, as soon as the customer’s problem is resolved, get back to their hectic routine. (Hey, if you’re busy putting out fires all day, every day, it’s tough to find time to install a sprinkler system.) This is the first way to profit – by driving repeat mistakes out of your business and enjoying the resultant productivity improvements.

And here’s one more step: bring the customer back into the loop. What if someone from Bob’s contacted Big Company, Inc. and it went something like this:

“Thank you for bringing your missing power cord to our attention. As a result of this situation, we reworked our procedures. Each product that arrives for service now gets a tag on which all accessories received are documented. Nobody – including you – should ever fail to get all your accessories back with repaired equipment.”

Almost nobody does this sort of thing. This level of dedication to quality, customer service and follow-through puts Bob’s Computer Service in rare company and helps create strong, life-long customer relationships. And, we all know the value of customers who are also raving fans.

We all make mistakes. You may as well profit from yours.

Work ON Your Business

Unless you’ve just been released from a long incarceration in a Turkish prison, you know that the concept of working on your business – rather than in it – was popularized by Michael Gerber in his mega-hit book, “The E-Myth Revisited.”

Gerber made many great points (which explains the “mega-hit” part), but the on/in distinction is the big take-away for most readers.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Go to work on your business rather than in it, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How can I get my business to work, but without me?
  • How can I get my people to work, but without my constant interference?
  • How can I spend my time doing the work I love to do rather than the work I have to do?”

So, what does it mean to work ON your business?

Well, one of Gerber’s main themes is the idea of systems. Systemize everything. Manage systems, not people.

It’s terrific advice, of course, but many small business owners still struggle, even after reading E-Myth. What’s a system? What systems are needed? Where do you start?

My answer: Anything can be a system. A system is simply a way to avoid NOT making things up as you go along.

  • Instead of plucking interview questions out of thin air, create a hiring system.
  • Leaving the coffee pot on overnight, or forgetting to set the alarm? Create a “last person out the door” system.

Here’s a system I’ve used for years in my own businesses:  “Never, ever ask for computer help until you’ve restarted it. Period.”

Simple? Yep. Like I said, anything can be a system. Not all systems are this simple, but you get the idea.

Beyond creating and installing systems, how else can you work on your business?

Perhaps more to the point, how can you find the time to work on your business when you’re consumed by it all day, every day?

Here’s a way to let the ideas and time find you: Constantly be in “improvement opportunity mode.” Every time an error or crisis occurs, stop. Avoid the temptation to put out the fire and get back to work. Analyze what just happened. Was it human error, or could a system – even a simple one – prevent future recurrence? If so, create it right then and there. In many cases, you can do this sort of “post-mortem” work in a matter of minutes.

Planning is a great way to work on your business. As an early riser, my favorite planning time is early Sunday mornings, before my wife gets up. And business trips can turn into mini planning retreats … if you keep the TV turned off in your room.

I know a business owner who tells me he likes thinking about his business while on his riding mower. Some folks really embrace this concept by taking their teams on annual out-of-town planning retreats.

Exactly what you do is less important than developing the habit. Start working ON your business today.

“Do it. Do it now!”  – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Stop Pouring the Wrong Coffee

pour-coffee

Ever been to a restaurant with someone who drinks decaf coffee? You sit down and order drinks. Someone at your table asks for decaf coffee. Your server fills the order as requested. So far, so good.

Pretty soon, your food arrives and you dig in. The drinks are getting low, so either your server or someone assigned the mission-critical task of keeping drinks topped off swoops in. The coffee gets refilled, but not with decaf. Luckily, the decaf drinker notices that the server isn’t wielding the familiar orange color-coded pot and brings the mistake to the server’s attention. A mumbled apology is offered, and the server takes the cup to the kitchen to swap it out for the right stuff.

No harm done, right? Happens all the time.

Let’s take a look at the effects of this minor incident on the parties involved:

  • It wastes the restaurant’s time and money, literally pouring good product down the drain.
  • It wastes the server’s time, eating into time available to take good care of his or her customers.
  • To some small extent, it erodes the customers’ confidence in the restaurant.
  • Multiply these effects by dozens of locations in a restaurant chain times thousands of decaf customers times a boatload of wrong-coffee pourings, and you get scads of lost time, product, money, efficiency, productivity, and customer confidence.

All irretrievable. And all so easily avoidable.

Virtually all restaurants use orange color-coding to designate decaf coffee. Astonishingly, though, most still rely on memory or ESP to determine whether a customer gets regular or decaf.

A very few food service operators have eradicated this problem by placing a telltale coaster under each cup of decaf.

No more doubt. No asking the customer about the contents of the cup. No more mistakes, or wasted time, or wasted product, or eroded customer relationships.

What a simple, foolproof, and inexpensive solution to a widespread problem.

Two quick questions:

1 Why the heck doesn’t every restaurant do this?

2 What’s your version of this problem in your business?

Now, I know that not all problems in business are this simple or this cut-and-dried. So, regardless of the severity or complexity of your oft-repeated errors, how about using an old saying to give this phenomenon a name?

“We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over.”

Here are two important take-aways from this discussion:

  • We’re talking about a system for fixing a recurring problem.
  • Every mistake is an opportunity to improve your company.

Let’s look at both of these ideas.

Use systems to avoid future mistakes.

If your approach to errors is people-centered, I recommend that you raise your sights a bit. While mistakes do happen and they can often be attributed to human error, a lack of systems and procedures is more likely in most cases.

Take the coffee example. If the manager happens to witness the decaf error, a brief conversation with the server might help avoid such mistakes for a while. The boss might even go so far as to convene a meeting of the wait staff, where they explore the importance of remembering which customer gets what coffee.

All well and good, but why not put a system in place (like the coaster) to remove as much human error as possible?

So I again ask, what’s your version of this problem in your business? Can you fix your nagging, recurring mistakes with color-coding, forms, templates, systems or procedures?

Every mistake is an opportunity to improve your company.

Mistakes are costly. They waste time, money, productivity and resources. They aggravate employees. They lose customers. Even so, each and every one is a golden opportunity for improvement.

Every time a mistake happens, ask: What can be done to prevent this same type of error from happening in the future? This is “root cause” thinking. You and all your people should get good at looking for the root causes of problems.

It’s not about blaming the individual employee. When errors occur, the person involved needs to admit it without fear of reprisal.

Drive individual blame and cover-ups out of your company. Replace them with willingness to admit mistakes, so you can find the root cause of errors and prevent them in the future. Learn from mistakes.

Make it the job of everyone in your company to identify and attack the root causes of errors.

Stop pouring the wrong coffee. Stop doing it over. Instead, start doing it right the first time.

 

It’s Not My Fault!

“It’s not my fault!”

How many times have you been a customer and heard that line?

It usually happens right after you bring a product or service defect to the attention of someone at an establishment where you’re spending your hard-earned money.

I was on the receiving end of this statement recently. It was tempting to give a customer service lecture to the person in front of me, faultless as he may have been.

This particular situation involved receiving the wrong fast food order. I had ordered the medium Unrecognizable Chicken McParts and instead received – and was charged for – the aptly named Super Sized version. For a moment, I thought perhaps they’d brought me the entire crate of McParts straight from the walk-in freezer but they assured me this was indeed packaged for individual sale and consumption. (Disclosure: While I may find it amusing to poke fun at the fast food industry, that’s where I had my first job. Accordingly, I’m somewhat sympathetic to fast food employees. Even so, until they start putting the right stuff in the bag, they will be the target of my “how-not-to-do-it” business lessons.)

As a small business owner, I pay special attention to the way service is delivered when I’m the customer. Most folks reading this are probably equally aware of nuances that might be missed by others: The words that are said and how they’re said, body language, the care with which transactions are handled, and so on.

It’s almost unfair to use fast food joints as examples of how to (or how not to) conduct business. After all, they make it awful easy to identify faults.

So, let’s raise the bar and discuss another industry. In fact, let’s discuss your own company.

Have you had the “it’s not my fault” talk with your people lately? Have you ever had it?

Chances are, if nobody has had a direct discussion with your employees they don’t intuitively know that the customer doesn’t care whose fault it is. Even if the customer does know who’s to blame, “blame” isn’t on the agenda. Getting the problem fixed quickly is.

Here’s a good discussion to have with your troops:

  • Every company makes mistakes – including ours. The difference between companies isn’t whether mistakes are made, it’s how they’re handled when they occur.
  • When the inevitable error does happen to one of our customers, apologize. You represent the company, and you’re doing this on behalf of the company. It’s not admission of personal guilt or fault, and it doesn’t invite repercussions.
  • Take steps to get the customer’s problem resolved. If you can’t do this yourself, be sure it gets handled.
  • When you make a mistake – whether it impacts a customer or not – admit it. Learn from your mistakes and share it with others so we can all avoid that mistake in the future.

As business leaders, it’s important for us to shift the focus from fault and blame to learning and improvement.

Banish “It’s not my fault!” from your workplace. Replace it with confident, competent service that keeps your customers coming back.