I grew up in a small family business. As in any business, momentum is its biggest ally and simultaneously its greatest threat. The challenge is we don’t often realize that the way we do something may in fact not be working.
Our family business, Bernard’s Garage in Milwaukie, Oregon, was started in 1925 and my brother Jim owns it today.
When I was 17 or 18 and my father was running the business with 12-15 employees I got my first appreciation for processes. Dad, like his father before him, was in charge of scheduling customers. If a customer wanted to get a tune-up on Thursday we would go to dad and say, “Mr. Fisher wants to get his Rambler tuned on Thursday, can we do it?” Dad would then say “yes” or “no” and we would go back to the office phone and tell the customer.
The problem with this process was that not only did we have to find Dad to get approval to commit to the customer, but Dad also had the schedule in his head and no one else knew who or what was going to show up on Thursday.
But this was the way we had always done it.
One day I had this idea and I walked over to the local stationery store and bought a stack of blue 8×5 notecards. I wrote “Weekly Schedule” on top of the blue cards and then created five columns, one for each day of the workweek. I put it on a clipboard and set it on the counter next the phone. The approach somehow got adopted and before long Dad was no longer the bottleneck for scheduling.
At that point in my life I had no idea that I would become passionate about this kind of work and even write a book about it (Business at the Speed on Now). As I now know, what I had done at the garage was a bit of process improvement. But more importantly, it was my first experience in systems thinking in a business environment.
Many of us work inside systems that are no longer capable of accomplishing what we need them to accomplish. And, our most common response is to simply push harder and try to go faster. That might work if you are running a 10k, but if your business processes are continually falling short it won’t work.
Creating new and better capability requires us to stop what we are comfortable doing, and find a better way to do it. Like the scheduling system at Bernard’s Garage, there was no need to fear or avoid the change because it actually made things easier for everyone.
If it isn’t working, stop and look hard at why. The solution is not as far away as you might think.