A Simple Solution

Over the last twenty or so years, I’ve developed an intense appreciation for world class chiropractic care. Don’t jump ship on me here… Hear me out! I’m not referring to the Homer Simpson’s of the industry who we’d never need to tell “less yacking and more cracking,” I’m talking about the absolute experts in the field who are truly dialed in on identifying the underlying issues that are causing the problem rather than throwing opiates at the problem - like so many MDs have been doing for far too long! 

In late 2005, I was in a pretty nasty wreck. I was able to walk out of the emergency room after a series of x rays, albeit in quite a bit of pain, but the ER doc handed me one of those little sheets of paper for some sort of cocktail that would have prevented me from operating heavy equipment for the foreseeable future. I wasn’t operating any such equipment at that time but you get the point… Rather than getting the prescription filled, I called in a favor with my friend who owned a chiropractic practice and headed straight there. He immediately found the root cause of my pain and started working toward resolution. I won’t pretend that he fixed me in one visit, or even ten for that matter. I was hit head-on by a kid going more than 60 mph (in a 35 mph zone) and had one of the nastiest cases of whiplash my friend had ever dealt with. Although the cure wasn’t immediate, his approach to fixing the problem rather than masking the symptoms kept me from what very likely could have ended in opioid addiction, and he helped me get stronger through the process!

With that example in mind, let’s tie it back to what’s killing your profitability and consider why that approach matters if you want to have even the slightest chance of finding the right prescription… In more scenarios than I can count, I’ve seen companies jump on the latest thing being touted as the holy grail for improving organizational performance. Just like there was a time where writing a prescription for multiple refills of oxy seemed like the right thing to do because of the significant immediate effect, any proposed solution for capturing that lost profit can feel necessary if we’ve had enough money slip through our fingers. But we’re likely just treating a symptom without identifying the root cause. And that root cause so frequently ties back to poor leadership in one area or another!

An article I found called The Impact of Effective Leadership on Organisational Performance opened by stating that “Today, companies are struggling with a lack of skilled talent in the labour market and high staff turnover rates. Plugging payroll gaps from outside the firm is becoming challenging, which leads to poor organisational performance. Add to that The Great Resignation and the issue grows bigger.” While that statement points to a fairly specific issue that can kill profitability, the focus of the article had a much wider view. In emphasizing how leadership (good or bad) impacts profitability, the author referenced a Forbes.com article about a study done with a Fortune 500 commercial bank that closed with this statement, “In summary, poor leaders lost money; good leaders made profit; and extraordinary leaders more than doubled the company’s profits in comparison to the other 90%!”

Don’t misunderstand what I mean when I suggest A Simple Solution… I’m not about to pretend that identifying and addressing the issues that are killing your profitability will be easy - but fighting through the loss of profitability ain’t easy either! What I will make a case for is that correcting the root causes of that lost profitability is much simpler than we’ve been led to believe it is. Before we start working through the specific areas that are most likely those root causes, there’s one big mistake we need to avoid!

Soft Skills Drive Firm Results

I can remember the phone call like it was yesterday… One Friday evening around 7pm several years ago, a friend of mine called as he was sitting in the parking lot at a high school football game where one of his kids would be playing with the band during halftime. I’m usually exhausted by Friday so I was all but asleep but decided to answer since he rarely called unless it was something important. He was the CEO of a local company and was frustrated about a conversation he had earlier that day with that organization’s board of directors.

The rub was based on the expectation that had been placed on him to develop stronger relationships with his direct reports. I’ll spare you the details of the entire 30 minute conversation but one part that stands out to this day was when he said, “My job is to get results! I don’t have time for that touchy-feely stuff…” During his time in that role, the organization’s revenue had doubled. The challenge was that nearly all of the managers who reported directly to him were ready to jump ship! My immediate response to his comment was “You don’t have time not to work on the touchy-feely stuff!”

Like so many other executives I’ve interacted with over the last 25 years, this extremely fast-paced and task-oriented guy had convinced himself that the organization’s success was based solely on his sheer grit and technical expertise in the field. While each of those things certainly contributed to their overall growth, ignoring the touchy-feely stuff ultimately resulted in him leaving the organization and moving his family across the country.

I don’t share that story to condemn my friend. Quite frankly, I think he’s an amazing person and I hated watching it all unfold. That said, I believe there’s a powerful lesson for all of us who have accepted leadership responsibility; the soft skills that are so often considered as touchy-feely really do drive firm results!

In Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, John Maxwell states that “One thing that holds many talented and intelligent people back from being good leaders is a lack of people skills. Someone with weak people skills can become a reasonably good manager, because management is focused on systems and procedures. But nobody without good people skills can be a great leader!” Confusing good management with effective leadership is a costly mistake made by far too many organizations and executives! I’ve frequently cited a Harvard Business Review study on the direct impact leadership has on a team’s performance and I’ll do it once more here: “increased commitment can lead to a 57% improvement in discretionary effort… which produces, on average, a 20% (more) individual productivity.”

If we want to address the things that are killing our profitability, we cannot afford to write off the critical skills necessary for driving results as touchy-feely! And to do this effectively, we need to consider each area these skills can impact so let’s identify several of those before beginning to work through action steps for each individual one.

A Different Set of Metrics

In all the years I worked in manufacturing, specifically with the various lean initiatives that were rolled out, one phrase I heard as often as any other was “What gets measured gets done.” At one point, I worked closely with one particular production supervisor to fabricate and assemble a few dozen rolling bulletin boards. These contraptions were made from 2” square tubing, welded together and painted blue (to match the equipment), with a 4’ x 8’ sheet of plexiglass mounted inside that frame. Once mounted, we fastened 20 or so clipboard clips to each. These were not-so-affectionately called “Glass Walls.” Once placed in a given work area, the glass wall was to be the place where all the important metrics were recorded. When kept up to date (and that’s a whole different story), anyone walking through a given work cell would be able to stop at the Glass Wall and know the productivity, scrap, overall efficiency, safety rates, and a dozen or so other things in real time - or at least to the last hour.

The Glass Wall idea was outstanding for tour groups because we could provide a quick rundown of the majority of a process in one spot before walking through the area. When a manager walked through, they would be able to get a quick snapshot of how things were going for the day. And for times when corporate executives visited the facility, those same Glass Walls held daily, weekly, and monthly data that served to show trends or identify issues that needed attention. In concept, a tool as simple as the Glass Wall can provide tremendous insight on productivity and profitability - if it’s kept up with and the things being measured and recorded are indeed important. Sustaining any initiative ties back to consistency and discipline. The challenge I saw with those Glass Walls came from trying to keep track of too many things, some of which only mattered to a few people (who rarely came near the work area).

Even with the flaws in the process, I believe we saw measurable improvement in many of the metrics we tracked on those Glass Walls. Quite honestly, some of the improvement likely tied back to the idea that the things being measured tend to get more attention. But why am I sharing all that with you now?

For every organization I’ve seen track numbers like those (productivity, efficiency, up-time, down-time, scrap, safety, etc.), I’ve seen dozens that have had absolutely nothing in place to measure or track what have ended up being their top profitability killers; those things that so many executives brush off as being soft or intangible… Moving forward, I fully intend to give you tools that can break that mold. Step by step, item by item, I’m going to provide you with a process for identifying your top profitability killers and outline how building more effective leadership into your organizational culture is the solution! Understand me here though, making this change will require us to look at a different set of metrics than most of us ever have…