The current expansion of our economy is over 120 months long, which is the 3rd longest in our country’s history. While we know this won’t last forever, many CEOs find it hard to take focus off maintaining their current growth while preparing for a possible economic slowdown. As the saying goes, “Profit covers Sin,” and businesses need to take steps now to uncover their sin in order to preserve profit to ensure their businesses are robust enough to survive an economic slowdown.
From a business perspective, one of the areas where I observe opportunities for preserving profit is through robust processes. I recently worked with a construction company that was entering their busy season. After just a 15-minute meeting, it was clear the company didn’t have processes in place that could help streamline day-to-day activities including preparing samples for a customer, invoicing new suppliers and communicating with customers. The lack of processes was causing disorganization and employee frustration. By establishing some basic processes, they were able to improve employee efficiency, enhance customer satisfaction and ultimately improve profitability.
From an individual standpoint, the most common productivity issue I run into with my clients is managing priorities and time. With all the requirements of the job, what are those vital activities which must be worked on? For me, the process of identifying those activities starts with my annual goals. From those goals, I use a monthly planning tool which helps me identify the key activities that must be accomplished every month. Then I use a weekly tracking tool that helps me make sure I’m using my time efficiently. Without this structure, I find myself adjusting my activities based on my mood or what I feel like working on, which sometimes is counter to my long-term growth goals.
This leads into another area that typically needs improvement: time management. This equates to understanding where and when to put your concentration and focus. For example, email is one of the biggest problem areas for my clients. An email inbox is a list of other people’s priorities for you, not a list of your priorities. But almost everyone I know checks their email first thing in the morning and constantly throughout the day. In addition, nearly all of my clients are alerted for each new email. These notifications are a distraction from what you are working on. Studies show that for each interruption, your brain will work on up to three different tasks before it goes back to the task it was initially working on. This can cause an incredible amount of wasted time and effort.
Time management also means scheduling time to work on non-urgent items that will have the greatest impact on you and your company. Steven Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” outlines the Time Management Matrix. In order to get the results we desire, we need to spend more time in the Important and Non-Urgent quadrant. This requires more thinking and planning and less doing. Personally, this is hard for me, as I like to check items off my To Do List. But the greatest gains I see come from spending more time on Important and Non-Urgent activities.
Having said this, the bigger question is how do I know what specifically I should be working on? Typically, my clients know they need to make improvements: they need to grow sales, they need to streamline processes, they need to focus on strategic issues. The challenge is which activities should I work on that will yield the greatest results?
The answer to this question is the root of planning for continued economic success. I recommend that management teams establish goals for where they want the company to be in the next 18-24 months and then identify critical success factors to achieve those goals. For example, if the company needs to grow 5% per year, what are the critical success factors for success? This could be greater manufacturing capacity, an enhanced sales team, new products, etc. Once there is agreement on the critical success factors, the team can develop an action plan to address those identified areas. I recently worked with a client whose goal was to grow sales by 10% within a specific targeted market. With the goal in mind, we talked through the critical success factors and the specific actions required of each salesperson. As an outcome of the meeting, each salesperson has identified target customers and specific goals for sales activities and these items are reviewed during their monthly sales meetings. Within just four months, they increased the number of new accounts by 25% and are on their way to achieving their goal of 10% sales growth.
An action plan can help individuals manage priorities and time and will also identify those processes that are critical to success. Implementing a plan like this isn’t difficult, it just requires discipline and commitment. If you need assistance getting your team unified and focused on the right priorities, let’s have a conversation on how to achieve your desired results. I’ve worked with numerous clients to establish a strategy for success and each time, the team has been able to achieve the desired results much faster than they could have imagined.