For Continuous Improvement, Mind the Connections Too

My bi-weekly link collection, including: building your purpose, managing stress, and tactical vs. adaptive performance

Finding Improvement in the Margins

With continuous improvement, we look everywhere for processes that lead to waste and inefficiency.  While we most often focus on core processes, connections between core processes must be attended to as well.  For example, the process for entering an order may be very efficient as may be the process for filling an order.  Now, consider the connection between receiving an order and fulfilling the order.  Are the interconnections flowing well?  How do the people who are fulfilling the order find out about the order?  Are people re-entering information?  Are orders missed sometimes because people are too busy? Learn more about how to find opportunities to improve inter-process connections.

Tactical vs Adaptive Performance

Many companies are good at doing what they say they are going to do, in the way they say they are going to do it.  This is called tactical performance. However, in a study of assembly line performance, Ethan Bernstein found that requiring employees to always do things exactly as designed can actually work against improvements in performance.  Building a culture where front line employees are encouraged to adhere to best practices and also find better ways to work - which is called adaptive performance - improves both overall performance and overall employee satisfaction. When employees have clear work procedures and the freedom to seek improvements they become more dedicated to their roles, more invested in their job, and better performing overall!

94% Belongs to the System

Recently, I participated in a lively discussion that focused on exploring the cause of human error.  As we discussed different scenarios, my fellow attendees posited that perhaps errors were caused by unclear instructions, insufficient training, management pressure to expedite something which resulted in important steps being skipped, or a culture that did not allow workers to sound the alarm when something was not right. We were clearly centered on how the system and circumstances surrounding a mistake contribute to that mistake. The group instinctively saw that a problem is rarely caused by the action by an individual person.  Our instincts were right. In fact, by some estimates, direct action by people accounts for only about 6% of the causes of issues.  Read about how to address the other 94% in this article.

How do you Find your Purpose?  You Build It!

We often think in terms of the Hollywood version of purpose in which the universe reveals its grand plans to the hero or heroine.  We know that this rarely happens in real life.  Instead, we must build our own grand plan or higher purpose, remembering that purpose is multi-faceted and ever changing. The challenge is to endow everything we do with purpose, to allow for the multiple sources of meaning that will naturally develop in our lives, and to be comfortable with those changing over time. Read more about finding purpose over a lifetime.

Managing Work Stress

High-pressure jobs or jobs that just aren't the right match for you can create psychological stress that is severe enough to have undesirable physical effects, such as chronic headaches, nausea, or insomnia. Even more alarming, high work stress can even lead to serious health events like strokes. If you find yourself in that kind of job and are feeling those negative health effects, it is essential to take intentional steps to ease your body and mind.  Find out how to identify the source of your stress and learn key strategies that will help you manage it better. Remember, if none of these things seem to work, it may be time for a change.  Your life could depend on it.

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Creating a System to Grow your Business

This article was jointly written by Alex Meyer of Renaissance Information Systems and Eric Hart of NPI Technology Management.  We share the view that strategic planning is the best approach to managing business growth.

Not every business wants to grow in size.  Vermont statistics bear this out.  Of the nearly 22,000 firms in the state, 80% employ fewer than 10 employees, regardless of how long they have been operating.  However, there are many small businesses that want to expand.  If expansion is your goal, we recommend creating and following a roadmap and process for managing the business’s growth in conjunction with the technology that will help to drive it.

A focused, intentional and flexible approach to planning is key.  For fast-growing companies, it may seem that the business changes faster than plans can be made.  Keeping a continual focus on a forward and backward view creates a smoother path for growth.  The desire for smooth growth highlights the need for growing companies to adopt a flexible and adaptable approach to planning and incorporating it into your everyday workflow.

The Agile Retrospective approach is a simple yet powerful method of incorporating regular planning throughout an organization, the retrospective is intentionally incorporated into your regular meetings and focuses your attention on what is going well in your business, what could be going better, and what changes you want to make.  These meetings can be used at any level of your business and on any timeline.  For example, production staff might meet every other week to improve their processes while the executive team might meet monthly to review the status of the business and/or quarterly to review strategic plans.

Systematize your business to support the increased size and complexity that comes with growth.  Systemization covers every part of your business—how you communicate internally and externally; how you acquire, maintain, and update technology; and how you make decisions.  As your business grows, technology plays a larger and larger role in your success and planning your technology usage becomes vital.  Below are a few of our recommendations for planning your use of technology.

Maintain access to your core data.  Whether you use a custom system, an off the shelf software package, or a Cloud-based software platform, be sure that you can access your data how and when you need to.  This is particularly important if you decide to change software systems and need to migrate your data.

Choose technology (hardware and software) that can grow with you.  When your company first starts, a loose collection of laptops and cloud applications works to keep costs low.  As your business grows, migrating to business-grade computer and networking equipment becomes a must for reliability and maintainability.  The same goes for Cloud services such as Microsoft Office 365, which has more features and is more secure than Google Docs.  Finally, your information systems must also be robust enough to capture the increased complexity in your business as you grow.  Some applications that served you well as your business started may no longer be up to the task and you will need to migrate to new systems or build your own.

Ensure there is oversight of all of your technology.  As you grow, maintaining and managing your technology will become a full-time job on its own.  You will either need someone internal who is dedicated to the task or an external partner with deep technology experience that can maintain your systems and guide you through making, updating, and executing on your technology plans.

About Renaissance Information Systems

RIS guides businesses through growth by helping them build a culture of continuous improvement and systematization; selecting, implementing, and integrating the right software; and uncovering insights about their business through business intelligence.

As Vice President of RIS, Alex Meyer works closely with business leaders to translate goals into action, strengthen and streamline business processes, and make smart investments in technology that will support their long-term growth.

About NPI Technology Management

NPI Technology Management is a technology partner, strategic advisor, and problem-preventer. We make sure our clients have the right system and network, and, as these evolve, we help them stay ahead of the curve.

As the CEO of NPI, Eric Hart works with business leaders throughout the Northeast with their technology planning and execution. 

Asynchronous Written Communication Provides an Opportunity for Deeper Thought

My bi-weekly link collection, including: balancing charisma, delegating, and matching your customer service to your business

Asynchronous Written Communication Provides an Opportunity for Deeper Thought

Marrion Barraud presents a few insights he found when he began coaching using written language instead of voice after a diagnosis of ALS.  Initially, he was concerned that IM and email would be too slow to keep the conversation flowing. Fortunately, he found that "clients say they like having more time to listen, absorb, think, and respond during a conversation."  Personally, I prefer asynchronous communication for this reason in particular. I find that the natural delays in asynchronous communication provide me with time to process what was said and consider a response in a way that can be difficult to achieve in in-person conversations.  Ultimately, I think it results in higher quality communication as both parties have a chance to think more carefully about their response during the conversation.

Scaling up?  5 stages of customer service development to consider

In this article, Michael Redbord of Hubspot uses his experience to provide insights for developing your customer service model as your company grows in size.  Using five stages of company growth, he provides a detailed guide of what you should consider as you develop and grow your customer service function. To guide you in moving from stage to stage, he also provides tips for the process of scaling from one stage to another. From the excitement of your first sales to managing a high customer volume, this article will help you make key decisions as your customer service evolves to meet your company's changing needs.

Can you be too charismatic?

Apparently so.  Up to a point, charisma correlates with effectiveness in leaders.  However, high levels of charisma result in lower ratings of effectiveness for leaders.  Why?  Highly charismatic leaders tend to focus more on strategic leadership to the detriment of day-to-day operations.  As a result, these leaders may fail "in managing the day-to-day operations needed to implement their big strategic vision and in taking a methodical approach to getting things done in the near term."  It seems, as with many things, moderation is the key to success.  Jasmine Vergauwe finds that leaders with moderate levels of charisma and a balanced focus on strategic and operational priorities tend to be more effective.

Find your "inner lookout" to better manage your stress

Growing a business is hard work and with hard work often comes stress.  Recognizing and effectively managing your stress levels and reactions to situations around you is vital to success as a leader.  Erica Ariel Fox provides a few quick tips to help you use your "inner lookout" to see how you are reacting to a given situation so that you can make a conscious decision about your actions.  By using your inner lookout, you can identify your emotions and choose how to effectively respond, rather than react to stressful situations.  That's a path toward good leadership. 

Balancing Doing with Leading

As a leader or a manager, delegation is a key skill that will keep you sane.  As your company grows, you can't do it all and it's not in your best interest to try. Skillful delegation allows you to distribute responsibility across employees, creating stability- the work will get done even when you're not there - and enhancing employee engagement. To delegate well, 1) provide your employee(s) with context for the assignment; 2) fully define the scope of your expectations and discuss how they align with the employee's strengths and priorities; 3) discuss how you can best support their success. When new work needs to be assigned, consider your role using the same criteria, taking on the highest-valued contributions that you’re most skilled at making and then delegate the rest as appropriate.

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Good Custom Software Makes Data Easy

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Meyer, a retired executive director with 25+ years of leadership experience.

During my tenure as an Executive Director, my best software made it easy to get the data I needed, when I needed it.  And I needed data a lot.  I needed it to track service demand so that I could determine staffing needs and predict revenue, to justify funding requests to grantors, and to educate my community about critical issues.  Whether non-profit or for-profit, public or private, in today's world, every organization needs good data for management and marketing. As the organization changes, those needs change overtime. Therefore, your software needs to be designed to capture the information that is critical to your organization now and in the future and make that data accessible.  Access to your data allows you to investigate and explore the questions that drive your management and marketing.

When choosing software, consider the following:

Your software needs a robust database

All of the software we used to generate data had some form of database behind it. Some software products were better than others at generating the data we needed when we needed it. Those that did the best were built on a relational database model. These databases, if well designed, have the capability to answer just about any question that is relevant to the business function it serves. In a relational database, unique sets of data are stored in tables and the tables are linked through unique identifiers. Any data from any database that shares those unique identifiers can be subsequently be linked to the main database as new table. 

My best database was a custom database that was written in MS Access. The database allowed us to capture everything we needed to know about the many and diverse events we offered each year. Over time, we built a history in this database so that we could examine trends from multiple perspectives and test new approaches.  We could tell people what we were doing, how well we were doing it, and how much of a difference we were making. This database was built to last. As technology advanced, it was upgraded to newer versions of MS Access. As our needs and processes changed, our custom software developer, made changes in the application so that it could support our changing practices, while our underlying database was preserved.   

Your software should make it easy to extract information

Most database applications come with some level of built in reporting.  When database applications are not customized to your particular needs, it is unlikely that the built-in reports will meet your deeper and evolving needs.  It is just not possible for a developer who is developing a product for the mass market to integrate all of the questions you might ask for your specific business. Given that, if you are purchasing a software product, be sure that your software has a robust query builder for your ad hoc needs or the ability for a developer to write custom queries against the software's database.  

One of the key database applications we used was a specialized product developed for our particular industry but not customized for us.  It had a flexible ad hoc query function and could answer many questions fairly easily.  However, there were significant limits to its query ability that made it difficult and complicated to answer some of our most important questions. Again, our customized MS Access database beat this specialized software product with its flexibility and querying capability hands down. In fact, there were times when the easiest way to analyze data from the specialized application was to export data sets from it and create our own MS Access database from these exports. 

A good relationship with your software developer is essential

As I mentioned above, my best database was a custom MS Access database that changed and evolved with my organization.  This change was only possible because we had a long-term relationship with a software developer.  The software developer was our mentor, helping us learn how to make the best use of the database. Over time, the software developer learned our system and our business and was able to help us make changes to the database to ensure it continued to support us as we changed and evolved.  This partnership is vital and is only possible through continued partnership on the system over the long-term.

With all this in place, you can transform your data into information

The power of the relational database, especially one customized for your needs, helps you understand your business world in a way that is not otherwise possible. It makes it easy to capture important data and transform it into the information you need to drive decision making throughout your business.  While standard business needs (e.g. accounting) can be well addressed by packaged software and software as a service models, custom software is the best solution for managing the information that makes your business unique.

Contact us below to find out more about how custom software can help you get better information for your business!

Is Software Development a Craft?

My bi-weekly link collection, including: innovation, continuous improvement, and sales metrics

Is Software Development a Craft?

In some ways, yes.  In other ways, no.  The pursuit of perfection is one of the hallmarks of craftspeople.  When developers care about their work on a personal level, customers receive the best value.  The RIS model, where developers interact directly with clients, encourages this craftsperson approach and results in highly custom solutions to clients' exact needs.  As Dave Nicolette describes, the "end result is so much better than when the work is done carelessly by people who aren’t fully engaged with their occupation."

Use the "Third Way" Approach to Innovation to Deepen Ties with Existing Customers

In 2008, Gatorade was struggling to compete against Powerade, despite an aggressively expanded line of energy drinks.  However, Gatorade reinvigorated growth by expanding their offerings to pre- and post-workout nutrition products, which was an incremental innovation focused on their core customers' (athletes') needs.  This "Third Way," a product family approach to innovation, allows a company to deepen their ties with their core customers by providing more value and strengthening their core branding.  Instead of risky disruptive innovations, this style of innovation leverages existing strengths and relationships to power growth.

Incorporating Continuous Improvement (Kaizen) Into Small Businesses

We've talked before (here) about the importance of continuous improvement and how to incorporate it into small and medium businesses without necessarily adopting the full lean and/or six sigma frameworks that work well in large enterprises. For small and medium businesses, it is most important to foster a culture of "step-by-step improvement in productivity and quality, practiced by staff at all levels," ensuring that people feel needed, supported, and valued as individuals along the way.  Soliciting small ideas at staff meetings is a good place to start.  "Celebrate small ideas, wait for ideas to come even if this means a pause in discussion. Help your team realize they have two roles – doing their normal tasks and activities, and contributing improvement ideas."

Improve your Team by Improving their Feelings of Psychological Safety

Being able to admit when things aren't going right is part and parcel of continuous improvement.  Unfortunately, many cultures discourage admitting mistakes, making it less likely that everyone in the organization will contribute to improvement.  Laura Delizonna offers a few tips for improving psychological safety on teams:

  • Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary
  • Speak human to human
  • Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves
  • Replace blame with curiosity
  • Ask for feedback on delivery
  • Measure psychological safety

Choose the Best Metrics for your Sales Team

The proliferation of metrics has led some management teams to measure everything.  The result is metrics overload.  "Managers don’t have a clear sense of what is really driving sales in their business" and salespeople are buried in dozens of metrics, unable to cut through the noise to use the metrics to impact their decision making.  The article suggests focusing on leading metrics (e.g. demos, web registrations, calls, or C-suite-level meetings), which offer "real-time feedback on whether salespeople are spending their time and efforts in the best way."

Senior Executives get Burnt Out Too

Countering burnout and ensuring that junior and mid-level employees love their job is a common focus in businesses.  However, it is just as important for senior executives to be engaged and love their jobs.  Jacob Morgan presents some of the ways that executives find meaning in their jobs and avoid burnout.

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