Entrepreneurs spend much of their day putting out fires related to customers, employees and money.
Fires happen. But the smartest companies work hard to prevent the same problems from rekindling again and again. How? By “leaving a fire extinguisher behind” after putting out any company fire, says Ed Hess, author of the new book Grow to Greatness.
“When you fight a business ‘fire,’ your job is much more than solving the problem,” says Hess. “It is to leave behind processes … to prevent the problem from happening again or to make it much easier to fix the problem if it does occur.”
Here are eight tips to keeping business blazes at a minimum, and how to respond when they do flare up:
1. Determine the cause of the fire once it happens. When you take time to really examine why a problem occurred, it’s much easier to fix and prevent next time. It also allows you to put the right tools in place to make sure the fire can be quickly put out.
2. Once a fire is out, put a process in its place. After you’ve solved a problem—say, acting on a customer complaint—and determined its cause, leave a process behind to prevent the problem from arising in the future. Or, if it does, provide employees with a fire extinguisher so they can put out the fire themselves.
“Every time you correct a mistake, write a short process statement saying if Problem X happens again follow the instructions on Checklist X,” says Hess. “Then, make sure every employee understands this new process.”
New problems occur every day. But by taking time to write a process, you’ll save yourself time in the future because you won’t have to be constantly correcting this same problem.
3. Start with the hard stuff. When deciding which problems to write processes for first, focus on actions and problems that—if handled incorrectly—can do the most harm to your business.
“That usually means product or service quality issues, customer interactions, brand reputation issues, and purchase or cash problems,” says Hess.
4. Create checklists for important tasks. Even airline pilots with decades of experience go through a safety checklist before taking off. Have checklists critical to the operation of your business. Examples: how to open for business; how to close; what to do in an emergency; what to do if an employee does not show up for work.
5. Eliminate single points of failure. Processes are important in a growing business for another reason: You never want a single point of failure. Make sure you always have back-up. Every employee’s job must be taught to at least one other employee so that he or she can step in immediately if someone does not come to work because of illness, family issues or unforeseen circumstances.
6. Update processes as needed. To remain effective, your processes have to be updated and improved as necessary. Also, as your business grows, you will need different and more sophisticated processes to handle more volume and more people. That may require software to keep better records and to create information faster.
7. “Huddle up” to keep key processes in the front of employees’ minds. Use short morning meetings to set priorities for the day.
“I learned about these morning meetings from Horst Schulze, who led the creation of the service award-winning Ritz-Carlton Hotel chain,” explains Hess. “He called them ‘huddles.’ During his tenure, every day, before every shift, in every Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the world, a short ‘huddle’ was held to highlight one key operating principle or process. Each of the chain’s core principles was discussed at least once every month.”
These huddles provide a great opportunity for review that help you make sure everyone is on the same page.
8. Schedule “firehouse” time. Thinking strategically or on a macro level about how to grow a business is different from thinking tactically and reactively to more immediate business needs.
Allocate time to get away from the business to think clearly about your long-term business needs.
“One entrepreneur emphasized this need by saying, ‘Give yourself an afternoon a week to think about five critical things going on in the business and to make sure you are focused on big opportunities or problems,’” says Hess. “It is hard to think strategically when you are putting out ‘fires’ and leaving behind fire extinguishers daily. Thus, the term ‘firehouse time’ means giving yourself time away from fighting fires to think about the business and plan for its future.”
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