Productivity and Innovation – 5 Critical Questions Every Business Owner Should Ask

I was speaking with a friend and fellow business owner a short time ago who’s going through some growth transition issues. He’s improved his customer service practices and a key employee just couldn’t embrace the changes and keep up.

After waiting too long (his words) he reluctantly made the needed change and replaced a long standing employee with a new person. He has a small business with only 6 employees so any personnel issue has huge ramifications. All in all he did a great job smoothing the exit of the employee and allowing for the relatively easy entrance of the replacement.

About a week into things he called the new employee in and gave him a ‘project’. The mission was simple, pay very close attention to the business process, work flow, communication both with clients and in the office and look for problems, issues and bottlenecks. This is a great idea for any of us. He basically recruited his new employee to function as an internal consultant looking at his business with ‘new eyes’. Now realize that this is not a witch job is to look at practices and policies not to spy on fellow co-workers and then tattle.

I suggested that he expand this practice one more step and I shared with him an idea that I’ve used, as a consultant in company after company that I’ve worked with but also as a technique that I’ve used to grow my own businesses.

Ask the 5 Critical Questions.

The process is simple, simply sit down with your employees, ideally one on one, and out of the office for a candid discussion. The larger the company the harder this is to do, so in large companies small groups of 5-10 people might be the best you can do. In a small business, coffee, lunch, breakfast, any 30-45 minute session works. This is not an excuse for dinner with the good looking employee and should never involve heading to a bar…I’ve found a diner works best. Let everyone know this is coming ahead of time so they aren’t shocked and let them know that you really want to hear from them, both the good and the bad.

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Try to schedule all of the meetings in as short a period of time as possible to avoid ‘meeting cross contamination’. If not all of the usual stuff will crop up in water cooler talks, “What did you say?”, “What should we ask for?”, “What did he/she want to know?” Try to minimize this as much as possible if you want the best information.

Once you have the meeting, get to know your employee a little better and then ask the 5 Critical Questions…I have found that asking them in this order works you ask for good stuff first they’ll gloss over the bad stuff.

What are we as a company doing poorly?

What am I, or what is management, doing that gets in your way?

What are we as a company doing well?

What can I, or management do, do to make your job easier?

And the $Million dollar question… “If time and money were not factors, what would you STOP, START or CHANGE that can help us do better for our clients?’

He took my idea and in a period of three weeks was able to have a meeting with everyone. Part of the feedback about the process…”The level of communications with our employees is at an all time high, and both the volume of output has increased while the quality has increased exponentially at the same time. Another benefit is that all of our employees are finally taking ownership, freeing me to actually grow the business.”

Ideas that have come out of other companies who’ve tried it:

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Wholesales changes to archaic customer service practices

Creation of project bid teams made up of marketing, sales and service reps to insure workable delivery deadlines

Changes to purchasing patterns resulting in significant cost savings

Employee/management teams that collaboratively created specs for capital equipment purchases

Creation of an award winning client service website

New and different marketing ideas

Development of new profit centers

A renewed sense of purpose after employees knew they were being listened to

Give it a shot, you have a lot to learn and you’ll have an opportunity to develop better relationships with your team.

You have nothing to lose, you have to eat anyway but trust me, the knowledge you’ll gain will make these meals some of the best money you’ve ever invested into your business.