We’ve all experienced what it’s like to move into a new home, only to discover how much we’ve accumulated when it’s time to move. We’re shocked and horrified that we’ve allowed our lives to become cluttered and full of unnecessary ‘stuff’. This is much the same with businesses, except they are even more difficult to purge. This is because they are larger, more people are involved and many processes and systems are deeply embedded in day-to-day operations.
Growth has a way of breeding complexity in business. Whether it happens overnight or over time, through a proliferation of products, increasing regulations, or surges in staff and sales, many companies find themselves paying a heavy price for complexity. They know they have to simplify, but most admit they don’t know where to start.
Business author Ron Ashkenas also points out that while most managers complain about being overloaded with responsibilities, very few are willing to give up any of them. “It’s one of the great contradictions of organisational life: People are great at starting new things – projects, meetings, initiatives, task forces – but have a much harder time stopping the ones that already exist,” he says.
Five ways to simplify business practices
With this in-built momentum, it needs discipline and focus to streamline and simplify a business and ditch excessive and wasteful activities. Here are some useful guidelines from Fast Company to help nail the process:
- Start with your customers. Everything you do should make it easier for customers to understand what you do and how to do business with you. Consider what it’s like to be one of your customers. How easy is it to buy one of your products, or get information about or use them? Irrespective of your size and what field you’re in, the customer experience comes first. The simpler their experience, the better.
- Elevate the mission. Engage your whole business. It’s critical that everyone knows and agrees that simplification is a company priority so barriers between different groups are eliminated. Simplification won’t thrive in a silo.
- Examine everything. Getting to the heart of simplicity is a top-down and bottom-up exercise. Have a plan. Be empathetic, fearless and uncompromising in your approach. Whether it’s in your communications or your engagement process, take a hard look at what’s truly essential and start to pare away everything else.
- Streamline, clarify, define. Start with your purpose. Once everyone is clear on why you do what you do, as well as how you do it, everything becomes a lot simpler. Google’s purpose, for example, is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and helpful.’ Nike’s is ‘to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.’ A simple purpose streamlines communications, clarifies intent both internally and externally, and helps define your path, your products, and your place in the market.
- Protect nothing. Creative leadership and bold actions are a must if your company is going to manage complexity. Sacred cows get in the way. Watch out for incremental change and the temptation to amend and extend. That invariably leads to more complexity, not less.1
Technology simplification can remove business headaches
Apart from people and processes optimisation, streamlining your technology can also make life at lot easier for everyone in your business. We all recognise the manual processes in our businesses that should have been killed off a long time ago, but, like most things, it sometimes seems more difficult to get rid of them than to just put up with them.
Don’t be discouraged – here are some quick and easy wins to begin with:
- Serve it up. A server can act as a digital filing cabinet for your growing piles of documentation. Compared to daisy chaining several PCs, servers give you a lot more reliability and improve your business. Also, by keeping important documents on a central server, it’s easier to back up all your important documents daily.
- Phone it in. Are you wasting time running between voice mail on your cell and office phones? VoIP systems offer a great deal of personalisation and features for a rock-bottom price. In fact, VoIP can be up to 40 percent cheaper than a traditional small-office phone system, and it offers useful features for any small business. Voice mails, for example, can be handled just like attachments – clicked, dragged, dropped and passed along. These systems are fairly new, but they’re getting more popular and more reliable every day.
- Take it online. If you’ve taken the leap of setting up an accounting package to handle your bills, take the extra step of automating the process. See if your accounting software can automatically generate invoices as well as e-mail reminders for late payments. Likewise, your accounting software (and your bank) can handle electronic transfers so you never have to worry about a late electric bill.
- Hit the web. Your website is a potential client’s main access point to your business. Don’t worry as much about fancy graphics as making sure visitors can get the information they need. An online FAQ list can cut down on the time clients spend calling with basic questions and prevent a frustrated client from going elsewhere.
- Stay on schedule. Creating a schedule for employees is a time-consuming nightmare for every employer, especially in retail. But there are software packages that let you scan for scheduling errors and track employee hours and earnings in real time.
- Tighten your supply chain. Strong partnerships with suppliers and service providers are critical in the supply-chain excellence area. Keep relationships strong by leveraging your buying power with as few service providers as possible.
- Outsource strategically. You don’t need to have your hand in every single pie anymore; let someone else carry part of the load. Outsourcing a few tasks gives you time to focus on something else – even if it’s a round of golf now and then!3
To simplify, more often than not, you need the courage to start with a blank page. All organisations need to periodically hit the ‘off’ button on activities that add unnecessary costs and complexity – you’ll see immediate dividends if you put the thought, time and energy into it.
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