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Grow strong, not fat

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I recently listened to an NPR podcast, in which Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard speaks for a fascinating half hour about the highs and lows of his entrepreneurial life. In it he has some very strong one-liners, for example: after Patagonia recovered from growing too fast he threw out "Grow strong, not fat". Very recognizable:

It is difficult to not grow as soon as business is somewhat successful, it is almost expected from the outside world. Often success is related to growth in number of employees, which is not good.

Of course there are also peaks and troughs in our country, but on average it is on an upward trend, which means that every six months we have a capacity problem.

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This is mainly because we are knowledge workers, we are not a factory where conveyor belts and robots are in use. As soon as a factory runs well and works efficiently, you can add more robots (or slightly increase the voltage) et voilá: more capacity - somewhat exaggerated, but you get the picture.

More employees seems to be the clear solution in our case, but appearances can be deceiving. Before you know it, you will become 'fat' instead of 'strong'. To prevent this:

Efficiency before expansion.

We are now at a point where everyone's schedule is full for the coming months. Are we going to look for people right away?

No, because since we started using the new version of our social productivity platform last month, we see that many things can become more efficient. We saw with Lucius that in certain areas overhead was growing, which can probably be dealt with in the short term.

Lucius in itself already generates considerable time savings:

  • All communications, projects, tasks and data consistently grouped in one tool instead of multiple locations and applications.
  • Communicate more easily with customers - no more fragmentation of communication and documentation.
  • Integrate robots and workflows: as little manual work as possible to complete projects and tasks.
  • Subsequently you can work very fast because it is a real-time application: the large part of the functions work without page refresh and are pushed instantaneously to all open screens.

This is a bit of "self-staining" :) , but the numbers do not lie

Anyway, the reason: tooling is muy importante. Deployment of the right software can cause an efficiency boost in the short term. It also ensures greater satisfaction among employees and customers, because the work is easier to manage and less management is required.

Be in the know: measure and know

As a result, you can better measure by using the right tools and optimising them further. Considering that it is often about time for knowledge workers, you should have insight into time use:

  • The most important activities that each employee performs as their primary tasks.
  • The amount of time a person spends on these core activities in a given week.
  • Activities that are carried out alongside the most important functions or projects.

When this data is collected, we can easily see in which areas our team spends the most time. To find more time, we look for opportunities to:

  1. eliminate work;
  2. improve productivity;
  3. reduce workload;

1. Eliminate work: are there tasks that are no longer needed?

As mentioned above, we first like to take a step back and look at the whole picture before we look for new people: are all efforts really focused on current priorities?

Last month, for example, we saw that a lot of time was spent on 'internal optimization projects' in relation to customer-oriented projects.

Many of these internal projects are currently still hanging in the calendar, because they were started when these internal projects were still a priority. It has never been explicitly stated that they no longer have priority with current business objectives.

We still do internal work, but by completing the less valuable projects, there is more time for customer work.

By shifting priority of internal activities, these also correspond more to current vision and objectives.

2. Improve productivity: what can we do to complete tasks faster?

Although process improvements can increase productivity, the biggest productivity improvements are often a result of automating tasks and projects. When automation is accompanied by process changes, the resulting impact can be significant.

For example, our team was working on the implementation of an online platform together with the customer. It usually took five weeks to do a sprint, which seemed an unnecessarily long time.

A solution seems to lie in 'bulk delivery and feedback': previously we produced what was desired per task and put that task forward for the customer's approval. Now we deliver all tasks in bulk, with an interactive explanation directly via screen call or on location. Then we give the customer 2 ~ 5 working days to put together feedback, we present that feedback in bulk at a set time face-to-face, so that everything is immediately clear to all team members. 2 ~ 5 working days later, this feedback is ready and we deliver, again by showing this in bulk by screen call or face-to-face. This way possible questions can be resolved immediately and the sprint will be live the next day.

This prevents endless back and forth ping pong per task and ensures that we have been able to bring an average project (sprint) from 5 weeks to 4.

Deadlines activate

3. Reduce workload: what else can we do to reduce the number of tasks performed by the team?

The remaining challenge is to find out the amount of time that employees spend on tasks with a low value - and to minimize them. These are the repetitive, transactional tasks that have to be performed, but often seem to take an inordinate amount of time.

It is not possible to eliminate all these tasks, but by diving into the details of existing processes, we can challenge the status quo and help simplify processes that reduce these tasks.

Wrap up

Employees usually do their utmost to work efficiently, everyone does that from their own perspective and usually has the best intentions for our company. Doing more with less may sound very challenging, especially when the company is growing and the bar for customer expectations is increasing.

In order to create more time in people's schedules, you will need to understand the daily activities well; tools such as Lucius are essential for us. In this way we can efficiently scale up and meet the expectations of customers - by doing more with less.

And if the three steps above do not work, managers may have to admit that it's time to hire more people - or join in themselves.

Written by Joris Snoek | May 20, 2020 in Insights
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