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!

By the Numbers

“The numbers in a business are just stories about people.”
– Jack Stack, CEO of SRC Holdings and author of The Great Game of Business

What are your company’s numbers, and how do you use them to assign accountabilities to departments and people?

Here’s the Great Game of Business approach:

1. Determine your main measure that defines success. We call it your Critical Number. In a small company, it’s likely profit. After all, you have to take in more than you spend. Set a specific target.

2. Visit with the people in each function or department. Ask them how they most directly impact that number. We’re looking for one to three “drivers” … the measurable activities that “drive” your Critical Number. In some departments – like sales – these will be easy to identify. Depending on what role a department serves, the driver may measure a supporting function and won’t necessarily be tied directly to the Critical Number. But every department should be able to define its contribution to success. Ask lots of questions and soon the drivers will emerge. Set specific targets.

3. Have those departments track their drivers on an ongoing basis, and meet weekly to review and discuss improving them.

Here’s how this might look in action:

ComputerFix is a small computer repair company. Their sales target is $1 million, and they’ve selected Profit Before Tax as their Critical Number. The goal: $100,000.

They have 6 service technicians and 4 support staff, including the owner, Pat. The techs generate revenue based on hourly billing. They have determined that if each team member can invoice for at least 75% of his/her time, the company will achieve its sales target. So their driver is Billable Time.

The support staff decides on these drivers for their main functions:

  • Dispatch: 98% customer satisfaction (measured via surveys)
  • Parts Purchasing: 100% on-time delivery
  • Finance: Accounts receivable outstanding < 45 days

The company selects 10 am every Monday for its weekly “huddle.”

At the first huddle, Pat explains that the employees create the numbers; accounting simply records them. Pat asks everyone for their best effort in keeping their drivers moving in the right direction.

When they get to receivables, an insightful discussion ensues. Jan in accounting talks about the importance of making new clients aware of the company’s payment terms. Alex in dispatch offers to send a “Welcome Aboard” email – including payment terms – to new clients. The techs will carry hard copies for new clients. All agree that clarity on payment terms will help customer satisfaction.

These huddles are nothing more than common-sense discussions about the employees’ impact on the numbers. This is the best way for them to learn the numbers, and to hold themselves accountable for them.

Running the business “by the numbers” is not just for the owner. It’s for everyone in the company.

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.

Your Most Important Document

In a previous column titled Great Expectations, I urged business owners to have realistic expectations for their employees.

Now let’s build on that message: Define your expectations.

In my role as a business coach, most of the issues I hear about are related to employees. And more often than not, a lack of clear expectations is at the root of the problem.

We usually let our people know how to do a job. “Open the software. Click the blue icon. Use the menu to find the customer …”

But how often do we let them know what behavior we expect, or perhaps more importantly, why we expect it?

If the only clues to acceptable behavior are the inevitable corrections that come when straying off course, it may take a long time for your team to figure things out for themselves.

If you expect your team members to treat others with respect, just say so. Clearly. Directly. Early and often.

Some of you may know that I own a company called Arch Engraving in Kirkwood, Missouri. We make and sell awards, signs, nametags and personalized gifts. In 2010, I bought out my two partners and became sole owner. After that, we were busy moving the facility and creating a spin-off business. The dust has settled so I finally found time to create a “culture document.” It was rolled out in late 2012 and early 2013 for our 10 full-timers and various part-timers.

This document contains our Mission, Vision and 6 Guiding Principles. Under each Guiding Principle are 4 or 5 bullet points to explain the principle.

The contents were reviewed individually with each employee. The Guiding Principles and underlying bullet points were used as the performance review form. Since this is brand new for everyone, the review meetings were mostly about explaining our direction and our “why”, with suggested (and in some cases, required) improvements noted as appropriate. I tried to use these primarily as educational meetings, and as my opportunity to get feedback on the document. After all, they were seeing these expectations in writing for the first time so there was no justification to get all worked up about non-compliance.

Going forward, though, this document will be our guide. Everyone now knows we will hire, fire, reward and promote based on it. They know to filter all decisions through it. Our Mission tells them what we’re all about. Our Vision shows where we’re going.

I’m not kidding myself – there will be set-backs. But staying the course and using the document in our daily work will make it real. It’s not just a plaque on the wall.

Some experts advise to make this sort of work a team effort. In this case, I did it myself and tweaked it based on employee feedback. Right or wrong, I felt the business should reflect my own values and expectations.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is now the company’s most important document.

Do you have a culture document? I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours. I intend to write more on this topic and would love to find great examples to highlight. Send me an email.

 

It’s Free!

free

It’s a typical day at Bob’s Company, Inc. Bob notices that a recently-hired employee is now eligible for dental benefits. So, Bob hands her an application. As he walks away, she asks, “What’s the cost?”

Bob’s reply? “It’s free. The company pays for it.”

If this was a movie rather than an article, the startling shower music from “Psycho” would come on at this point.

Or maybe it would turn into a take-off from “Young Frankenstein.” Instead of “It’s alive!” the line could be “It’s Free!”

Shame, shame on Bob. He wasted a terrific opportunity for a “teachable moment” with a new employee.

Of course it’s not “free.” Every benefit provided by the company costs good money.

Free. What was Bob thinking? He should have responded something like this: “Our dental insurance costs about $25 per month. The company pays for it. It’s part of your compensation – just as our other benefits are.”

Too often employees think only about base wage or salary when the subject of compensation arises. This happens because we business owners and employers let it happen. You’re likely to hear something like “I make $35,000 per year.” You are very unlikely to hear an employee say, “Well, my base is $35,000, but on top of that my employer generously pays another $12,000 for my health insurance. Counting my paid time off, my other benefits and my payroll taxes, I cost my employer a whopping $58,000 per year.”

So, how do we get our “bang for the buck”? How do we get our employees to recognize and appreciate all aspects of the compensation package – so the company can enjoy a fine ROI in the form of increased employee satisfaction, improved productivity and reduced turnover? How do we drive the “entitlement culture” out of our companies?

Here are some approaches to use:

  • During hiring interviews, listen for signals. If the candidate is focused like a laser beam on your vacation plan or grimaces noticeably when you explain that you don’t pay 100% of the health insurance, these are not good signs. (Note: Yelling “Next!” is not a tactful way to end an interview.)
  • Your candidate job offer letter should outline the entire compensation package and focus on the total value – not just the salary.
  • Make ongoing education part of your company’s culture. Talk about the cost of doing business. Let your folks know how much insurance rates go up every year. Make sure the employees know that they have a vested interest in the company’s success … if they help the company succeed, you can continue to subsidize their insurance costs and provide excellent benefits.
  • Print a year-end statement for each employee, showing his or her total compensation and benefits costs.
  • Consider all aspects of compensation costs when budgeting and projecting pay increases. Example: Let’s say you like to provide an average 4% pay increase per year, and your total company compensation expense (including benefits) is $800,000. A 4% overall increase is $32,000. If you expect your health insurance to go up $5,000, you now have $27,000 left for salary increases. (Back to education: Explain your rationale and the math to your employees. Involve them in the decision. Maybe they want more salary increases and are willing to bear more of the insurance costs. If they help make these decisions, you’ll get better buy-in.)

You invest lots of money in your company in the form of salaries and benefits. Chances are, payroll and related expenses are the largest line items on your income statement. Spend the additional time and effort to maximize the investment. Done right, it can pay you back many times over.

PS: Bob’s story has a happy ending. He realized the error of his ways and corrected his statement to his employee.


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.

What’s Your Number?

numbers

“What gets measured gets managed.”

 It’s hard to argue with that piece of wisdom. That said, here’s another old saw to consider:

“If everything is important, then nothing is important.”

Between these two valuable quotes is a balance and a guideline for business owners.

All businesses have certain numbers that define success. Some, like profit, are universal. Every business must take in more than it spends, so an argument could be made that this number – profit – is a definition of success for every business.

But what about other numbers? There’s certainly no shortage of other things to measure – sales, costs, margins, cash … the list goes on and on.

They’re all important. But don’t forget: “If everything is important, then nothing is important.”

Focusing on a small, carefully-selected handful of numbers and actually doing things to improve them is much more likely to lead to overall success than scattershot oversight of dozens of different numbers.

Some business owners create a scoreboard or “dashboard” of metrics – to pull selected numbers out of the blizzard of income statements, balance sheets and other reports – and single them out for an appropriate amount of attention.

This is how the “What gets measured gets managed” piece comes into play.

So, how do you cut through the scads of potential metrics which might be worthy of your undivided attention, and discover the select few which will truly make a difference?

Think about your business. Two questions:

1)    Are there things related to your specific business model that are absolutely critical to ongoing success? For instance, if you are the low price leader, then cost of sales is likely a primary area of focus.

2)    Are there things going on in your business right now that deserve attention? Examples might include things like declining quality, too much dependence on one customer, or high employee turnover.

If you find that there are specific things that warrant a permanent place on your scoreboard, then add them and leave them there. Or, perhaps you’ll discover that a temporary issue needs attention – so it gets a spot, only until it is resolved.

In most cases, these big-picture, corporate-level “critical numbers” will have underlying “drivers” – activities which must be done to move the number in the right direction. A simple example: weight loss. If your critical number is pounds, the drivers would be calories in (eating) and calories burned (exercise.)

The best drivers measure activities and behaviors, as in this weight loss example. If you want to change a number, you’ve got to change someone’s activities or behaviors.

These are the numbers that deserve a significant amount of time and attention. That’s not to say other numbers aren’t important. They’re just not as important.

Identify and break out your critical numbers and drivers. Get them on a scoreboard for all to see. Talk about them. Teach and learn about them. Assign responsibility for them. Track them. Most importantly, be sure to move them in the right direction.

Your business will be more successful for the effort.

It’s the Spread

“Thirty six thousand dollars!”

“You’re proposing to pay him thirty six thousand dollars a year? We can’t afford that.”

“It will be tight, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it will take to get him. I really like this candidate.”

Discussions such as this happen all the time in small businesses. The company is in a hiring mode, the recruiting and interviewing has happened, and now it’s time to narrow it down to a specific candidate and make an offer.

It can be agonizing. I’ve been there and I’ll bet you have, too. Help is desperately needed but the best candidate seems too expensive. Heck, maybe any candidate seems too expensive.

Let’s listen in on the discussion the other interested parties in this situation are having:

“Thirty six thousand dollars!”

“Honey, you were making forty thousand when you were laid off. I don’t think we can afford to accept thirty six.”

“It will be tight, but I’m pretty sure that’s the best they can do. I really like this company.”

Two sets of people on either side of a salary negotiation. Both are looking at the same number and of course considering things from their vantage point, and with their own interests in mind.

The number they’re all focused on – annual salary – is the number we all use. Employers use annual salary to measure the cost to the company, and employees use it as the measure of compensation received.

But let’s dig deeper. What’s the real, full cost to the company for a $36,000 per year employee?

Salary                               $36,000
Plus payroll taxes           $  3,750
Plus benefits                    $  6,000
Total cost to company:  $45,750

What appears to be a $36,000 cost is in reality going to cost the company almost $46,000.

Now, let’s look at the employee’s side of the ledger.

Salary                                                           $36,000
Less payroll taxes                                        $  2,754
Less income tax withholdings                    $  7,200
Less employee’s share of benefits cost     $  1,000
Employee take-home:                                 $25,046

To drive home the point:

Employer cost                                  $45,750
Less employee take-home              $25,046
Difference                                          $20,704

That’s quite a spread between the company’s actual cost and the employee’s actual spendable net.

I suggest that these are the two numbers that deserve the attention of the folks involved. In this light, the annual salary almost becomes meaningless.

Yet, time and energy are spent negotiating a number that has little real-life importance.

I know – we won’t stop talking about annual salary. Too much pride is tied up in that number, and it is admittedly a convenient yardstick.

To me, the big deal is the spread. Here are the take-aways:

  •  Employees deserve to know what it costs their company to employ them, and the total value of their compensation package. Let’s tell ‘em.
  • Both employers and employees can help reduce the spread. For instance, employers can choose pre-tax benefits, reducing payroll tax. Employees can make healthy choices and wisely spend deductibles and company-provided benefit dollars.

I’d rather spend my time cooperating with employees to reduce the spread than arguing over annual salary. How about you?

Create a Simple Company Procedures Manual

Virtually everyone recognizes the importance of having an office procedure manual, but actually creating one is a big job, so it doesn’t get done. Here’s a SIMPLE way to get it done:

1) Buy an ordinary three ring binder. Mark it “Procedure Manual.”

2) Put some ordinary lined notebook paper in it. Congratulations! Your company now has a procedure manual!

3) Have everyone in the company contribute to the creation and upkeep of this manual. Whenever a repetitive task arises, the most likely person (whoever does that task) takes a few minutes to hand-write a procedure on one of the blank pages. Give it a title so it’s obvious what it’s for.

4) Assign an administrative person the task of periodically taking these hand-written procedures and typing them into a computer using a word processor program like Word. Put a “Revision Date” on each one so you always know whether you’re looking at the most current version. Replace the hand-written procedures with those printed from your computer.

5) Add to it and tweak it over time. It’s never really “done.”

That’s it. The hard part may be getting your employees to stop “winging it” and to actually follow your new procedures.

Track Your Numbers Manually

One of the best things to happen to small businesses – heck, to businesses of any size – is computerized accounting.

Can you even imagine someone sitting down with a two-column ledger book and documenting each individual sale, line by line? It’s the way companies did it for centuries, until recently. We’re fortunate to be living and running our businesses in the modern era.

Despite my high praise for computers and all the things they can do for your business, I still urge you to manually compute your most important numbers. That’s right – use a calculator and a pencil and write them down. Every month.

Here’s why:

It’s so easy to nonchalantly look at a report – like a computer-generated income statement or balance sheet – and put it aside. Critical numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page at you.

In fact, your basic reports may not even give you certain important ratios. If you track revenue per employee, the ratio of current assets to current liabilities, and other key ratios, you may well have to calculate these manually.

My recommendations:

  • Determine what numbers, ratios and other key performance indicators are important enough to track monthly.
  • Set an acceptable range – maybe even specific high and low “red flag” limits – for these indicators.
  • Create a routine for this work. Set aside some time, and use the same format each month. You might do your calculations in the margins of your computer-generated reports, you may use a blank sheet of paper, or you might design a fill-in-the-blanks form. It doesn’t matter how you do as much as that you do it.
  • Working from your computer reports, find the numbers that you’ll need and do your calculations. Do it religiously each month.

If everything is within acceptable range, terrific. Celebrate with your team and maybe even give out some sort of reward for a job well done.

When you find numbers that are out of whack, spring into action and do something about it.

Of course, timely monthly reports are key to making this work. If you’re getting your reports weeks after the month closes, that is a problem that also needs to be tackled.

Using this simple and low-tech approach, you’ll quickly develop a “feel” for your numbers and will stay on top of problems while they are still small and manageable.