In my book (Simplify Everything) I refer to “do-do” work as that which makes us look busy, even if it keeps us from accomplishing anything. All too often, companies have created do-do work over the years to fix something that happened once.
Process improvement is a way to identify those old “do-do” Band-Aids and weed them out. It enables us to simplify processes that will allow us to get to “done done” quickly. This will also increase accuracy, improve morale, reduce costs and improve profits. So why is it so hard to do it?
First, it requires change. The fact that we have always done something one way is brandished like a protective shield. Everyone has figured out how to game the system. Any change could mess up their cozy existence. Besides, much of the busywork created in a “do-do” environment is relatively easy, and the pay is good.
Second, it requires admitting that you may not be doing things as well as you could. It even means you may be doing things that are counterproductive. That is hard for many managers to swallow. They always want to be seen as at the top of their game: “I don’t want any outsider coming in and telling my people there are better ways to do things.”
Third, it may cost money. “We do not have excess resources lying around. There is no way we can spare people for a special project like this,” is a refrain I hear all of the time. Or, “if I had extra money, I would buy more inventory.” Too bad they do not recognize how much more money they might have and how many resources may be freed up by changing the way things are done.
Finally, there are the young people who are willing to ask questions when they see something that looks stupid (at least until they are put down too many times). These may be your best resources, but it is hard to listen to someone without the experience to know: “This is how we have always done it – and there must be a good reason for that.”
What every business owner should want to do is to find the time-wasters and eliminate them.
Start by getting rid of duplicate work (even if you call it quality control). For example, how many distributors do an extra count of what they picked before the final pack and ship, just to make sure it is right? What a waste of time. Why not improve the process so you do it right the first time instead of correcting sloppy work?
That is what process improvement is all about. Fix problems, not symptoms of problems. If you bandage a symptom, new ones will just pop up. Resolve the problem and all of the symptoms disappear.
When we start a process improvement project, the first thing we do is teach the staff how to find the underlying problem. That is usually most of the battle. Once the real problem is identified, it is relatively easy to find solutions, pick the best and implement them.
How do you find the real underlying problem? Ask “why” at least five times. That will take you there.
For example, A/P checks are a bottleneck.
Because it sometimes takes a long time to get them signed.
Because the president gets busy.
I guess it is because he has a lot of work.
Why does the President have to sign all of the checks?
I don’t know.
Does he ever refuse to sign one?
Not in recent memory.
Now you are almost there. Most of the time it turns out the original owner signed checks and that is what he taught his children so they would control the checkbook. That may have worked when they did a million dollars a year. At $20 or $30 or more millions, it is no longer reasonable. Let the controller sign all checks that are against approved Purchase Orders and are less than $25,000 (or pick another number you are comfortable with) and cut the bottleneck down to almost nothing.
You are now ready to practice on your own issues. Try out something that bothers you. Find something that takes too much time. Find something that you have always wondered why you do it. Then take action. Change things. Experiment if you must, but do something. You will be surprised at what can be accomplished.
Steve Epner is principal in the Brown Smith Wallace Consulting firm based in St. Louis. He has been advising distributors for over 30 years. Epner also teaches Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Graduate School of Business at Saint Louis University.
Epner is the author of Simplify Everything: Get Your Team from Do-Do to Done-Done with One Surefire Process, available from MDM.