From the April/May 2008 Issue
A myth that’s sure to put your client behind the competition Bob thought
his electronic parts business was doing well. Customer counts and revenue were
up again last year. The accounting system he bought after Y2K gave him what
he thought he needed — a report on who owed money and how much cash was
in the bank on any given day. He was feeling relaxed and just cruising along.
Little did he know that he had missed a few turns.
As the business environment around him was starting to change, Bob didn’t
realize that his turn-of-the-century business processes and systems were starting
to break down. The first hint came with a courtesy call to Sam, a long-time
customer. Sam’s business was also up, but he had to admit that he wasn’t
buying much from Bob anymore. It seems that Sam’s purchasing agent had
a lot going on during the day and preferred to handle buying at night when there
were no interruptions. He’d found a supplier with an eCommerce site that
could handle his unusual hours and so that’s where the business was going.
It cost a little more with shipping, but it was convenient.
Across town, Sally was feeling pretty comfortable in her role as Operations
Manager because she felt like she was on top of the expenses for the company’s
chain of casual dining restaurants. The daily sales analysis information was
coming in from the point-of-sale system at the restaurants, and her accounting
team was handling the data entry that allowed her to capture and report sales
Her team also got the invoices from the vendors who supplied the restaurants.
Most vendors sent one bill for multiple locations so the data-entry people entered
the invoice as one total, never considering breaking out those expenses by location.
Sally reviewed the financials monthly, and, since the margins shown were about
what she expected, off they went.
Sally’s bubble was burst when a supplier asked her to help with some
future projections. He was very complimentary about the chain’s newest
restaurant, suggesting that location must have been a homerun since that store
was ordering twice as much food as the other locations. That didn’t jive
with the point-of-sale revenue numbers Sally had been seeing from the store.
It turned out that, yes, they were ordering more food, but only because the
new manager was in business for himself, selling their food supplies elsewhere
and pocketing the difference. The old method of tracking information just wasn’t
working anymore. The time had come — in fact, it almost passed them —
to fine-tune the reporting and processes to track all activities down to the
Do these stories sound familiar? Businesses invest time and money to put systems
in place, and then everyone gets comfortable because they are running smoothly.
The common theme: Don’t mess with it. Or as you’ve probably more
often heard, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” With
hindsight being 20/20, that’s the kind of decision that can strike at
the foundation of an otherwise healthy business. In today’s competitive
environment, it’s dangerous to sit back. The driving mission, instead,
should be toward continuous improvement.
Position Your Clients for Continuous Improvement
“Excellence is rooted in continuous improvement,” says Sam Allred,
the founding Director of Upstream Academy, a leadership training institute.
“It is never an accident; it is always the product of a purposeful effort.
While few travel its disciplined path, those who do enjoy an uncommon view.”
As a trusted advisor, you owe it to your clients to help position them for
continuous improvement. Add to your annual checkup a recommendation that they
make a corporate commitment to review their major internal business systems
at least every few years. It’s not likely that they’ll need a total
change, but it’s better to find out earlier if they need to fine-tune
and consider adding a new tool such as eCommerce (in Bob’s case) to their
mix of business tools.
Help Clients Take the Right Steps
If you do uncover a hole (or holes), be sure that your client takes the right
steps to refine the process or patch it. Here are a few suggestions:
- Drill in so you understand the information they need to run their business
and make timely and accurate business decisions. Access to information is
critical, and you can only think about getting comfortable and see the true
picture when there’s confidence that the information is coming in from
all levels of an organization.
- Utilize resources. Their systems partner ought to be happy to come in and
help review their updated requirements. If they don’t have that level
of confidence with that partner, help them find a partner who takes a more
consultative approach. They’ll be more effective in uncovering business
needs and better equipped to map out a plan and workflow to automate and streamline
- If your client is large enough (or savvy enough), you might encourage them
to assemble a permanent team charged with regularly reviewing internal systems.
It can be done on a rotation, with quarterly meetings, perhaps, and specific
systems to be reviewed each year. This would likely eliminate the need for
a “major overhaul” at any one time, provided the team includes
people from throughout the business. Teamwork is great, but be sure they assign
a responsible point person as coordinator. If you don’t, then it becomes
a textbook case of “if everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible.”
- Encourage your client to set aside a budget each year for systems projects.
Make it what’s affordable, but also fund it. There are no shortcuts;
continual improvement requires continual investment.
- For most companies, “the accounting system” is the business
system relied upon. The accounting system handles the basics of financial
statements, paying bills, paying employees, tracking sales and inventory,
project tracking, manufacturing, workflow, and more. This is the system from
which the data mining is done, so it is only as good as the information that
goes in. Help them in this area. Your client’s success will improve
if their financial systems provide good and timely information that enables
them to make smarter business decisions.
There’s no room for complacency in today’s business climate. Help
them see the “win” that they’ll gain in developing a culture
of “continuous improvement.” They’ll be happier and far more
likely to continue to appreciate you as their trusted advisor.