December 2004

Changing Course

The best remedy when something isn't working is change - any change at all.

By Anthony Noel

When the Fatal Mistakes series began back in February, we said that many of the "illnesses" affecting businesses are strikingly alike. Not just similar, but often exact copies; it is not unusual for one company to be struggling with the same problem being dealt with by another, hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

That is because, at its most fundamental level, business is business everywhere.

Here's a handy reference to the "illnesses" covered in the year-long "Fatal Mistakes" series, beginning in February and running through December 2004.>
Communication Deafness


Terminal Friendliness


Costs Not Knowing Your Costs

Negotiating Price ("Bargainitis")

Capital Expenditures Fear, Desire and Cheapness

Unnecessary Hirings

Overall Management Approach Growing for Growth's Sake

Not Playing Fairly

Failure to Change



Owners bring common expectations — realistic and not so realistic — with them to work every day, across the country and around the world. Managers struggle with deadlines and customer demands daily, no matter what their business is. Employees go to work each day hoping their efforts will result in a better life for themselves and their families.

Success in the custom woodworking business, as with any business, is strongly contingent upon a manager's understanding of what makes a difference to the company's bottom line and what doesn't.

Throughout this series, we've identified common behaviors, policies and practices which can lead to serious problems affecting the overall health of any business. But for all its universality, the list of dangerous maladies also has a specialized side. Business may be business everywhere, but it's never safe to say that a particular approach to solving a problem is THE right one for every business, or even for most.

Applying one-size-fits-all solutions ignores the diversity of the individuals - owners, managers, employees, customers, vendors - with a stake in the business in question. In short, the "ailment" may be common and easy to diagnose, but identifying the best cure is something else again. Getting good at that only comes with experience.

As we close out the "Fatal Mistakes" series with some final thoughts on Overall Management Approach, let's look at that word for a moment. An apt definition of "experience" is: "The abilities and knowledge gained by dealing with specific real-world challenges and by enacting plans aimed at surmounting them."

In other words, it is by trying various solutions that we can quickly learn the most about what does and does not work.

In March of 2000, I wrote the following: "There are things you can do in every area of your business to make it more manageable. But it will require not only a willingness to change, but also an almost fanatic devotion to change."

Last month, we noted the importance of consistently practicing business with fairness - to customers, employees and suppliers - as our uppermost concern. This, and only this, is the only thing that is NOT fair game for change.

Every other aspect of your operation is, however, and should be viewed through this question: "Is there something we could change to make this work even better?"

More than any other "ailment," unwillingness to change (and its more passive cousin, neglecting the need for change) is most often the reason a company may find itself continually limping along, rather than taking regular, healthy strides forward.

Looking for clues that you're stuck in this rut?

One is failing to make time for the key sales reps that service your company. Now this may seem opposed to what I've had to say in the past about reps. It's true, some can be a thorn in your side - especially if yours is a one- or two-person operation - frittering away minutes that turn to hours with small talk and pointless conversation. But the good ones understand the value of your time and can efficiently point you to products and services that might profoundly change your thinking - and your business - for the better.

So, learn to differentiate between good reps and the rest, and don't be too quick to judge. New reps may need a few visits to show their potential value. But once you know a visitor to be a drain on your time, throw down the gauntlet: "I have a business to run. Please don't come back until you have information about a product that can really help me."

Another hint that you may be stuck in the no-change rut: Your people question you about why things are done a certain way, and the best reply you can offer is, "It's just the way we've always done it."

An even better (well, worse) clue, however, is when your people don't question or challenge anything in the first place. This usually means that, be it purposefully or unintentionally, you've somehow managed to silence the very folks you most need to hear from.

If you only hired people to crank out the work, you're only getting half the benefit of having employees. If you're not cultivating an atmosphere where employees want to contribute their ideas and are rewarded for doing so, you're (1) definitely working too hard, and (2) probably a control freak.

Someone once defined "insanity" as constantly repeating the same behaviors, even in the face of hard evidence that those behaviors are not producing the desired results.

Last month an analogy was drawn between consistently doing business fairly and the way professional golfers consistently repeat what's known as their "pre-shot routine." But it is easy to forget how those pros spend hours on the practice tee. They're forever fiddling with swing mechanics, tweaking their stance, their grip. They'll try anything, in fact, that they think might provide the perfect combination of power and control, and bestow another 10 yards of distance off the tee or 10 inches of accuracy on approach shots.

Smart businesspeople do the same thing. Fairness may be their overarching concern, but that doesn't prevent these pros from constantly seeking out new products, ideas, and practices that might increase the quality of their work, the length of their client lists and/or the quantity of money in their general accounts.

So ends the "Fatal Mistakes" series. I hope it will help you steer clear of the kinds of errors that can profoundly harm your business. Thanks for reading!

Happy Holidays, a healthy New Year - and I'll see you in 2005.


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