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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Crisis, change and opportunity

Mel Lester's description in his blog entry, Success, for a Change, of how a company successfully changed its business model to make safety a high priority is an enlightening reminder that sometimes really good things can happen when you push through and do things differently.

But change is hard. In Lester's story, the change occurred when his company's major client made it clear that safety must be a priority or it would lose business. Few things can motivate executives and employees to 'get it' than to realize they are about to lose their client (or job) if they don't shape up, and quickly.

My own business is seeing some changes now, as I recover from one of my more expensive blunders of recent years. Thinking we had successfully overcome the last major crisis and were on the way to rebuilding a massively successful company, I let go of key cash and business management controls, relying on inadequate financial reporting and measuring resources.

Costs skyrocketed just as the recession began tearing into our sales volume; and (worse), I pushed forward with business expansion plans thinking that "one bad month" would not thwart our success.

Well, the four-letter-word indeed hit the fan, and we suddenly faced an immediate business crisis. The solutions are still under-way, but we learned some important lessons which you may find helpful in your own business.

Little things count. Not because you are nit-picking, but because tackling the little things (quickly and without much time/effort) allows you to see and resolve the big picture. On Monday, for example, I cancelled a bill for a cell phone number I hadn't used in two years. We are especially careful in monitoring the credit card billing statements, checking them online every day, for charges which need explaining.

Decisiveness is vital. I've had to make hard, tough decisions, which impact on individual employees. In one case, I asked someone who joined us after a lengthy selection process to leave within two weeks of joining the company (fortunately, we had not lured the person from a better-paying job, so didn't harm the individual.)

Fairness and respect are essential. One of our employees combines income from hourly pay and contract work, with the understanding (at the outset) that his hours would be variable. Alas, he felt the immediate brunt of the cost controls, but we've worked to feed him additional freelance work (at lower cost than we are paying other suppliers) to help him maintain some degree of income stability.

Openness is crucial. Our previous accounting and reporting system clearly didn't do the job, but we have maintained it because employees, in receiving the reports before and during the crisis, can see the numbers and that the problems (and solutions) are real. Through Open Book Management, employees also are receiving the new, much more detailed and forward-looking reports. This openness has helped us to maintain trust and respect and proven to the employees that superficial cost cutting measures are not enough.

I can't say all of the decisions we've had to make have been easy, and some of the toughest choices are imminent. But I'm now optimistic we'll pull through. You can, too, if you take charge and do what you need to do, while working openly and forthrightly with your employees to solve the problems.

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