Last month, I had the opportunity to speak to the Fairview Village, Pa.-based NARI of Bucks-Mont Chapter during its educational conference. The turnout was great. I spoke about how to build a small business and ensure it survives. When you stop to think about it, running your own business is scary, wonderful, rewarding, unfair, challenging and satisfying—sometimes all in the same day. It is easy to look at a company, like Boeing, GE or Intel, and assume it’s really tough to run a large company like that. It probably is, but think about how many upper-middle executives retire from the ivory-tower corporate jobs and decide they are going into business for themselves only to find out it’s tougher than it seemed.

Operating a small business successfully is no snap, and arguably it is harder than the big corporate job. Why? Because it’s often a one-, two- or three-man show and everyone is wearing lots of hats; the fancy term is multitasking. The corporate exec was used to having someone he or she could call for answers while the small entrepreneur has to go dig up the answers himself. So, as a small-business owner, what is a good way to keep from being overwhelmed?

What do many of the successful small companies in remodeling have in common from a management standpoint? They’re turning over rocks and looking in the bushes and over their collective shoulders. They’re not looking for gremlins but sometimes they find them. When they do, a future problem has been diffused and probably at a good time. Too often when we have a process in place that works and is profitable, we check the gas but not the oil. When you run out of gas you can start up again right away; run out of oil and you are out of commission for a long time. If you run out of oil unexpectedly, you weren’t at all prepared.

Business processes, systems and procedures may work well but that doesn’t mean they “ain’t broke.” We often are just getting away with something. How do you find the problem? NASA uses redundancies; when the first item stutters, the backup takes over. This is great for avoiding time loss, but keeping two Bobcats on the job in case one breaks down gets a little pricey. Another way to find the problem is to wait until something breaks and then fix it. You certainly can say you got the most out of the part or piece, but the time lost can be a killer.

Instead, there’s a great way to use a company stethoscope and improve reliability at the same time. Mechanics, carpenters, managers, customers, subs, vendors and even you respond when asked how things are going. Asking for an opinion about a process or system is never a waste of time. If the respondent always complains nothing is going right, then he or she has an attitude and needs to go. If he or she brushes off the inquiry without thought, he or she may be too shallow and need to be deep-sixed. Most of the time, however, you will get a thoughtful response that will point out weaknesses or something “broke” that can be fixed. At the very least, asking someone’s opinion typically is considered a compliment and can raise an employee’s self-esteem.

Whether it is part of creating a company manual, punch-listing an inspection procedure or analyzing a meeting, the critical participation of those involved will yield a superior result compared to calling in an outside expert. Plus, it helps your team take ownership. There is no question that you can overdo the snooping, but a lot can be said for checking around to see just why “it ain’t broke,” while you’re here…

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