Have you ever uttered that immortal line, ‘Look, if I could clone myself that would be perfect’? It’s all too common for the owner of an independent business to be trying so hard, putting in countless hours, feeling like the wheels are spinning, and still finding there are just not enough hours in the day. Often they are just flat out, or feel they don't even have time to put aside time and discuss how to do something about it, because they are stuck in a cycle of overload.
In fact, often the client is so busy they don’t even know how much they really do need help, or what they need help with. And it’s that old cliché: they’re buried up to their neck working in the business, unable to work properly on it.
Does that all sound too familiar? Here’s how to break the cycle, using a structured approach I’ve used with many clients. It works. It quickly helps win a few good chunks of time back, and will give you a new sense of control over what's going on.
It works like this: build a live and real (not assumed) Position Description. Log everything you do or try to do in a day, over a week, over a month. The aim is to work to identify the things you really should be doing – and to extract all the things others can do. Then you build training or succession plan for the people who will now take on some of that work, especially if there are skill gaps.
Training plans with timelines are the absolute best solution for the old saying, ‘But nobody here could do that stuff.’ Breaking down the tasks to hand over, training, setting realistic timelines and follow-ups for training and delegating that workload. The exciting part is, the team of people currently working under you will be receiving great growth and skill development from this exercise, resulting in a major culture boost. Even better, you yourself will once again find that feeling that you’re winning again, when you pick up those files from your ‘To do’ tray and really start working on the bigger wins and opportunities.
Let’s break that down into three key steps.
The first is data gathering. Begin by listing everything you are trying to do now, personally – every task, how many emails, calls, how many staff to manage, how many decisions involved in a day, week or month.
You can expect to experience something of a bit of a ‘Holy cow!’ moment when you’ve got it all actually down on paper. I recall one memorable experience: with an owner looking to try to replicate his business in other locations, there was no chance when he was doing crazy hours a week. In this step we filled out sheets of paper with tasks, and responsibilities. When we finished, he had a laugh (at least I think it was a laugh) and said, ‘Yeah, you're right, wow.’
The second part of this first step is to test it. Talk through a day, and cover a lot of normal business functions end to end quickly to see if any are missed. To take an example, if you have a sales team that is asked for a discount, do they need to ask you? If they do, then add this step to the PD: approve every single discount.
And what about quotes, do you need them all to cross your desk? How many times a day does this happen?
Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that this process is actually a lot harder to do all by yourself than you might imagine. In truth, it's a process that works so much better with an outsider coming in with fresh eyes asking about every step. You’re almost certainly doing so many things that you’re not even aware of half of them.
Having identified what is actually getting done, our task now is to fish for what’s on hold. What's been raised in the business, but parked? What known challenges or opportunities are there in the business, that would and could be resolved if only there were enough hours in the day? Here are a few examples that may make you wince:
It may even be something critical, such as the folks in the warehouse pointing out that the walkways run straight through the main fork areas and people just walk out. Them: ‘We’re going to have to re-route all the walkways.’ You: ‘We just don't have time right now.’
Ring a bell? It’s OK, you’re not alone!
These are all ‘Yeah if we had time’ projects that never see the light of day because the business owner is too caught up in daily tasks. The point is, there's at least a few things on the ‘To Do’ list that are actually very important and really do need to be actioned.
The second stage of the process is to sort them into activities which are either High Pay Off (HPA) or Low Pay Off (LPA). An HPA is something that you should do, yourself, and not train others, or at least not yet – for example, you may hold key relationships with the top five accounts and top five suppliers.
By contrast, an LPA is something that you are doing, perhaps because you’re don’t trust others to do it, or because you’re too busy to train them. But it’s an activity that is not the best use of your time and skill. I’ve witnessed business owners stocktaking, receiving huge container loads of goods. Why on earth are they still doing this? Because they’ve always done so, and they’re tasks which have just grown and grown and taken up more and more time.
Just the very process of dividing tasks into HPAs and LPAs creates a healthy dialogue, a challenging and confronting review of what's really important and who could do it instead.
What you can pretty well depend upon is that you’ll end up with a list of HPAs which is likely to comprise only 50%-70% of what you have been doing. The rest needs a new home. And this is where you will make huge gains. Finally you’ll get to key activities that you have never previously got close to, such as putting time into key stakeholder relationships. Remember the days when you used to spend time with your biggest clients, for example? Now you can get back to doing what’s really important in the business.
In one case, a business owner found time to grow into other states, where they are still operating successfully and profitably today. It meant hiring an Admin person, but that was planned for, it made sense and the resulting opportunity yielded a huge return, absolutely dwarfing the additional cost of admin.
The third stage of the process is to look at the LPAs, look and at your team and look at who could and should be doing these tasks. Is there a skills gap? Do we need a training plan and a timeline to handover? Well, let’s map that out and see what that looks like. Is there a need for more help, perhaps an additional admin person? Knowing your business, if you could give that person, say, 25% of your LPAs and enable you to spend a quarter of your day and your week on high level strategic work, wouldn’t that be worthwhile?
And don’t make the mistake of thinking that a task has to be 100% in or out – don’t forget thresholds. For example, perhaps you don’t really have to see every single quote, but you absolutely do need to see the significant ones. Now for every business what counts as significant will be different, but let’s say perhaps it’s $5,000. (And you can always adjust the threshold up or down over time.) Now you don’t sweat the small stuff – but you still get to be involved in the stuff that matters. This again is where having an external sounding board can be very helpful. Just yesterday a client was talking about the next level of software she needed to invest in, but was focused on the cost. As we talked it through it became obvious that the benefits far outweighed the cost, and the decision more or less made itself.
Is this making you uncomfortable? Are you concerned about transparency? Good! One of the best ways to push this through is to ensure that activity is tracked and reported on, so that quality and accuracy don’t fall away, and the whole team can stay informed. (Actually, what we very often find is that quality and accuracy increase, because you’re putting in place a system for measuring them, rather than managing by look and feel.) When you have a dashboard, which shows at a glance whether you’re operating in the green (good), amber (needs checking) or red (danger alert!) zone, then it becomes much easier to relax and trust your team.
What are the pay-offs for this process? Of course the obvious ones are that you get back more time and you get to spend more of your time on the things in the business that really matter. You’re back working on the business rather than just in it.
But that’s not all. You’re building the capability and maturity of your team, who in many cases will surprise you as they grow into the tasks you’re entrusting to them. That spreads risk within the business and, crucially, adds value when it comes time to sell (see Kevin Lovewell’s article elsewhere in this newsletter). Another way in which this process adds value to the business is in the necessity to build training manuals, Standard Operating Procedures, which ensures consistency and quality, and makes it much easier to train the next generation when it comes time. And of course, once a process is written down, it’s much easier to improve it and refine it further.
This process involves change, and that always throws up challenges. But at the same time, having successfully made this change, you’ll find your business is now much better equipped to take on the next change or challenge – such as onboarding a new major account, for example. It’s just so refreshing when you sit down with a new major project to find that you already have the building blocks in place, and a culture in which people are ready, willing and able to accept changes to what they do and how they work.
So just this process alone is capable of giving you back time, increasing your capability to develop business strategy, and at the same time building a culture of growth and opportunity, trust and team achievement.
Damien Hill is a member of The Network of Consulting Professionals and an expert at helping businesses to become more dynamic, agile and profitable. You can reach him on 0491 687226 or email@example.com.