CWB March 2000

Embracing Change

Change is inevitable. But that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.

By Anthony G. Noel

If you have read this column on a regular basis, you know I've got little patience for what I have sometimes referred to as "corporate-" or "Dilbert-speak."

You know, stuff like, "Group initiatives focused on value-building with a strong customer-orientation."

I mean, it's so much clearer to say, "We're going to pull together to make the best stuff we can, built to the customer's specifications."

And don't even get me started on "paradigms." Ugh.

I prefer to focus on — and practice — change. Because when you are building a business, or, as Dilbert's workgroup would say, "constructing a paradigm," the only sure thing is change. Change is inevitable. The times they are a-changin'. Got change for a dollar? And all those other change-related cliches.

Seriously, as we looked last month at how a small shop might happily make the conversion from "struggling" to "established," we noted that there are no easy answers when it comes to many of the issues shop owners regularly face.

We concluded that, if you want to own a shop and do a decent amount of woodworking at the same time, you will probably need a business manager, unless splitting 80-hour weeks between the bench and the office sounds appealing to you.

But what if you are open to working in the office more than the shop? What if you have found (or are willing to search for) that shop leader who will free both the time and trust you will need to devote yourself to, as Bachman-Turner Overdrive so eloquently put it, Takin' Care of Business? What then? Where do you start?

It's no accident that the businesses which embrace change are those which tend to endure, for they are most adaptive to always-changing market, production and supply conditions.

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. It begins with the hiring of your first employee, and continues (at least, for those who are successful) for the life of your business.

When your company was just you, maybe selling work on the side of doing your "real" job, things were easy. You could buy materials the way you wanted to, deal with every customer directly and buy equipment when the money was there and you were so inclined.

As your business grows, however, things will change. It might be more cost-effective to purchase materials differently. The workload may become too much to permit one-on-one contact with every customer. And demand for a successful product may point to investing in equipment based on realistic sales projections instead of a "gut feeling."

The changes don't end there; we've just scratched the surface. There's updating estimating procedures based on better production techniques and lower materials costs (since you are most likely buying in bigger quantities); instituting a standard timekeeping program so it is easier to extract time values used in estimating. There is the whole issue of sales, the separate issue of marketing, and the fusion of both of these into a system that maximizes your chances of getting the work you want. And certainly not least (and definitely not last), there is the daunting task of managing people.

Whew! Take a deep breath.

It can seem overwhelming. The trick is not to let it get that far. And the key to that? Apply your changes first where they are most needed.

For example: You are halfway through a job when it becomes obvious that you underpriced it like crazy. Just at that moment, you notice your newest employee is about to run material incorrectly on a shaper. What do you deal with first?

Of course, you deal with the immediate danger to self and others that your new worker is posing. This is a simple example of the importance of priority setting. The pricing issue will be there after you have tackled the training one. If someone gets on a shaper who is not qualified to be there, it begs a much larger question: How did that happen in the first place?

Here is an example with, perhaps, a less-obvious answer.

Cost accounting has shown that you have been consistently using the wrong price for drawer-box construction. That wrong price is included in three jobs you are going to pitch tomorrow. At the same time, your shop foreman walks in and announces that your drawer guy has been fabricating the numbers on his time studies. You knew the price was inaccurate; now you have no idea of how inaccurate. And a month's worth of production hangs in the balance. What do you do first?

Your answers most likely include postponing the sales presentations, determining an accurate number for the drawers and reading your drawer guy the riot act. The key is doing things in the correct order.

Which brings us back to change. As you look at every area of your business, you will realize that the best way to avoid crisis-management situations like those just described is by putting procedures in place which address them before they can occur.

In the drawer-box example, there was clearly a problem with accountability. Either the employee refused to accept it, or the importance of the time-study program was not made clear. Whatever the source of the problem, your job is to locate it and address it.

For too many small shop owners, this task is put off indefinitely. "I've always had a certain way of doing things," their reasoning goes, "and people will get used to that as they work here."

Nonsense. Would you instruct someone to deliver an entertainment unit without giving him or her an address, directions, or at least the customer's phone number?

Well, that is essentially what you are doing if you take the passive approach to change. You are telling your associates -- be they employees, suppliers, customers, whatever -- that it is up to them to figure out what is expected.

Change is as simple as letting your receiver know that deliveries must be checked against purchase orders, and that discrepancies must be reported to the office immediately. It is also as complex as constantly updating your overhead costs to ensure that your prices (and profits) keep pace.

But we are back to the basic question of where to start. Though the answer is as individual as your business, one constant is that you must address first what needs your attention most.

Don't institute change for the sake of doing it. Don't fix what's not broken. But when you have identified an area that needs attention, address it comprehensively, with plenty of input from your key people about how things work now and how they would like them to work. Define where you are and where you want to go, and make the changes that will get you there.

Then, it's on to the next area that needs attention. Your longer-term goal is to get everything under control, at least to the point that you will be primarily fine-tuning procedures and writing entirely new ones only as major changes necessitate them.

And the overall goal? To anticipate problem areas before they develop and address them in ways that prevent their occurrence.

Remember, change is a good thing. Embracing it is the best way to keep your business growing.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.