One of my clients, “Mary” (not her real name), recently challenged me to recommend a plan of five actions she can take to elevate her newly adopted business to a higher level. I had previously advised her through a relatively significant process in another company. She’s now taking on another big challenge and wants to capitalize on her previous wins, but do even more.
“Only five, Jim” she said. “I want to focus on doing five critical things exceptionally well.”
Mary is an over-achiever’s over-achiever. Where most people would ask for two or three things to do, she’s determined to take on five. Ok then!
What I suggested to Mary is what I’d suggest to many leaders who want to kick performance up a few notches. On the surface, they appear to be basic, but to do them at a world-class level (where Mary sees herself), requires a hell of a lot of hard work and discipline.
Here are the five actions I recommended to Mary. Steal them if you want and let me know how you do. (In most cases, I‘d strongly suggest addressing them in the order listed.)
1. Clarify the company’s business strategy and financial goals for everyone in the organization. Carefully paint a clear picture of what the organization will look like when you achieve an exalted level of excellence. Write down and communicate to your leaders how a future Fortune article will describe the company and how you got there. Repeat it over and over again until you can’t say it again. Then say it once more.
2. Build the business and financial literacy of every employee. Make sure every employee–from the sales person on the floor, to the receptionist, to the maintenance man on the night crew–knows how their decisions and actions influence the cash flow statement, income statement and balance sheet. Explain to your team that financial statements aren’t just a bunch of numbers. They’re stories about people and what they do.
3. Begin a regularly scheduled and rigorously disciplined cycle of meetings or huddles that focus on managing the numbers. Use the meetings to recognize and celebrate people for their big and little successes. Never cancel one of these meetings because you have other things to do (a higher priority). Make sure everyone in the company knows how to solve problems—really knows continuous improvement problem solving techniques. You shouldn’t tell a story about wanting to improve and not give people the basic skills and tools to do so. Every meeting should end with a strict action plan geared to improve at least one number that’s critical. Use the next meeting to report what was done and the impact it had.
4. Create an action plan for yourself. Ask yourself what program, project or activity is really important to your ability to win. If you aren’t its champion, become its champion. Spend time on it. Ask people who are working on the effort how they’re doing. Ask them what they need to help them make it a success. When it does succeed, make a lot of noise about it. If it doesn’t, make a lot of noise about their nice try. Stop telling and start listening even harder than before. What’s on people’s minds? What’s preventing them from being the best they can be? Ask them what your customers are saying about you? Ask them if they know where you’re going? From each trip, list five things you can do differently in order to better connect people to the company and its vision, strategy and financial measures. Act on what you learned. Tell people what you did.
5. Find five examples where systems, programs, policies, procedures or organizational structure send messages that conflict with your vision, strategy and financial measures. If you’re telling people that quality is important but you measure and reward productivity you’re sending mixed messages. If you tell people they’re empowered and you make them wait five days to get an approval to spend $500 you’re not only sending mixed messages but you’re also telling them you don’t trust them. Mixed messages confuse people and diffuse productivity. Which of the out-of-alignment systems are doing the most damage to performance? Create a specific plan to align them with your vision, strategy and financial goals. Tell everyone what you did and why.
So, that’s a simple five point plan. But it’s not just about the plan. It’s about the day-after-day, down-in-the-trenches execution.
This is hard work. If it were easy, you and everyone else reading this would have done it by now.