Reliance on individual efforts and lots of spreadsheets & systems

After a [socially distanced] visit to a company, we were reminded of how so many businesses rely on a few people who struggle to just about cope with the systems they have in place. Often for many years.

An all too common story

The situation was familiar, key staff updating a few separate systems – an array of spreadsheets, a Sage system, a sales tool, etc. – and reliance on the knowledge help in people’s heads.

Talking to the key staff, most mentioned how they liked the simplicity of their systems. However, one department (production, as is quite typical) seemed to have the toughest job. Individually, each spreadsheet, print out, a scrap of paper, job sheet, etc. served a purpose and was simple enough in its own right.

However, getting all these updated at the right time and right way put a heavy reliance on one person. The one that knew and was confident in how all these fitted together.

This is post is not to single that company out but to highlight this an all too common situation for many businesses.

A frog in boiling water

Fast-growing companies tend to have to automate as they cannot recruit fast enough, but companies that grow steadily so often solve each problem by loading on a spreadsheet / separate system until you get to that one spreadsheet that breaks the companies back.

It is like I remember from Biology lessons. Throw a frog in boiling water, and it jumps out (the fast-growing company). Put a frog in cold water and slowly crank up the Bunsen burner and the frog boils alive (the steady growth company).

It all seems fine until it is not and then the panic for a solution (or learning how that one person did it) starts. That ‘fine’ is a very fine balance too. It is often out of whack during a holiday, sick leave, corruption in one spreadsheet, a virus (I was thinking computer virus, but the current pandemic also holds too), a move to a new job, paternity/maternity leave, etc.

Looking for a solution

Intuitively the solution to the problem is to hire an assistant. Typically (and unfortunately) this often results in poor delegation (no time) and/or that person ending up doing other helpful tasks, but not solving the ‘frog boiling problem’.

The real solution is to change the approach and make system day to day tasks sharable. That needs a though approach & a proper joined-up system. It does not need to be a single software solution (although that does help), it just needs to be one that multiple people can and do use. And where each system talks to the other.

This removes the time consuming and error-prone efforts used to keep different systems [not that] up to date and avoids the frequent disruptive interruptions needed to get thigs done.

It pains us when we hear that people still print out reports 1st thing in the morning for person X who then update Sage (or whatever systems/spreadsheet) with last night’s production output or timesheets, or stock adjustments, or whatever.

People should not have to do that anymore! Most key people needlessly work well over their expected hours – & while on holiday – due to these types of systems.

This is not OK! It all seems fine until it is not, and then the panic for a solution starts.

As business owners, it is on our interest to spot these situations early – and fix them – to allow for manageable growth and operational resilience.
Letting these situations lie and allowing people to cope increases stress in the team and often necessitates a reactive approach to getting things done within the organisation. This leads to less than optimal performance and significantly hinders growth. If you want to sell your business or are approached, such processes will devalue your business as well, as the new owner will wish to have a resilient system in place.

Recognising and trying to sort these situations out before they are problems, creates an environment where the right solution can be chosen over a fast one. Avoiding the temporary fix that inevitably leads down the same road. “Fast” solutions are like putting the frog in a new beaker of cold water, one with a Bunsen burner still under it. Spot it early and put the fog into a new pond instead.

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