Companies pay a lot of money to hire consultants to help them reorganize or restructure their business. Often ‘streamlining’ is the operative word. Generally it becomes the CEO/President’s pet project. Too many times, there is no buy in from subordinates, regardless of at what level they operate. I’ve seen top managers and field office employees express a total lack of respect for what their consultants are trying to achieve. Many consultants, no matter how much they are paid, really have no idea about what the company really does. What the culture is like. What the competitive atmosphere looks like. But, consultants coming in from the outside, are more likely to have the ear of the company leaders. Admittedly, some consultants are brought in because of low morale, excessive turnover, etc. That is a response to employee concerns and behavior. And, sometimes that’s for the best. If the leadership won’t listen to the employees, maybe they need to be told that their behavior, failure to listen or pay attention to employees, is what’s driving the problem.
Another reason outsiders are brought in to streamline a company is often, employees are not in a position to see the ‘big picture’. That means, they are not in a position to see where a process both starts and ends. It becomes very difficult to improve the process without that vantage point. But it can still be done.
For Controllers, often they are in a unique position to take on the task of consultant, to think ‘outside the box’. Have you seen the recent La Quinta motel ad about the consultant who ‘thinks outside the box’? I’ll devote more of this series to the ad. It’s quite a takeoff on business in today’s world. All the buzz words that come and go. But, thinking outside the box is a key quality that all good consultants must have.
For the past twenty years or so, most of the streamlining that I have observed is migrating processes from manual to computerized (or mechanized). Software has unleashed the power of computers (and vice-versa). We’ve gone from handwritten invoicing to computerized invoicing. The amount of time and money that has been saved is immeasurable. Obtaining your boarding pass from a machine rather than an airline agent saves customers time and airlines millions. Don’t you head for self-checkout at Walmart when you have just a few things. (They still need to improve their software). Companies want to find ways to cut their single most important overhead expense which is labor. Fewer airline agents, grocery checkers, secretaries and gone are the elevator operators and switchboard operators.
So how do you, the controller, train yourself to think like a consultant.
STEP ONE: OBSERVE
Observation is the skill all consultants must have. Note that I defined ‘observation’ as a skill. It is the same as listening is a skill. If you cannot take in your surroundings and ask yourself, ‘could we do this better? Faster? Smarter? Cheaper? Then you need to learn how.
Example: When my boss was promoted and given a whole new region to oversee (the region every manager wanted) I was dispatched to their head office with the following instructions ‘don’t change anything. We aren’t going to make any major changes for at least six months’. He was always very adamant about this and, although I was impatient to get going, eventually I saw the wisdom of it.
One day, as I sat in the manufacturing plant’s office, I saw an employee making hundreds of extra copies of invoices. I asked her what she was doing. Her answer was that they made copies (this was back in the day of manual invoices) of invoices because the home office wanted to have them on file and they didn’t have enough copies in the invoice set. Therefore she made copies and mailed them each day.
Not only was this time consuming, the copier was churning out thousands of copies a month.
I called the Corporate controller. We had a great relationship. He was the most laid back guy I have ever known (and respected). I asked him to find out why they needed these invoices.
Can you guess the answer? It seems that they had needed copies years ago for some special record keeping exercise. Now, the mail room just threw them away.
Why in the world hadn’t someone called down there and put a stop to it? That was easy!
STEP TWO: ASK
You must ask why. Over and over. (I know it drives you crazy when a toddler does it) But it doesn’t change anything. Enhancing your understanding is the goal. One CAVEAT though. Never change anything or pull the plug unless you know its total impact.
In truth, I was performing the task of a consultant who can sit and observe and then ask why.
STEP THREE: LISTEN
Observing and listening may seem very similar. Observing is watching and interpreting what you see.
Listening is looking at the person who is talking. Making a serious effort to understand and care what they are saying. As you listen to each person in your office, over time, (sometimes a very short time) you will discern a pattern. Maybe there is a bottleneck that no one will fix. Maybe there is an employee busy intimidating everyone else. And maybe their equipment (generally P.C.’s) is so outdated employees are putting in overtime to get the job done. There are thousands of possible scenarios. Learn what yours are.
Remember, you have a head start on most outside consultants. You know the business, the employees, the inside information on why some things don’t get done. Put all that to good use.
Next week, in Part II, we’ll discuss the tools you will need to clearly define the issues and solutions required to begin the streamlining process in your company. We’ll even talk about SYNERGISTIC INTEGRATION (watch for the La Quinta ad).
Are you listening?