In business it's common to be fire-fighting, especially when you're scaling. It’s easy to neglect the problems when the business is growing quickly. But more and more problems occur. If you leave this unchecked, fire-fighting might become all you do. You're making no progress: all you are doing is running around with a fire extinguisher putting out smouldering fires.
You need to turn this around and get the level of fire-fighting under control before it becomes a critical issue.
List the problems and their impact
Make a list of all of the things going wrong in the business right now. Estimate how much time it consumes fixing these things every week. Look at their impact on the business: on a scale of one to five how risky would it be if this was left unchecked? Rate the problems according to their urgency.
Resolve the easy wins
Work through this list and identify any easy wins. An easy win is something that can be permanently resolved quickly. An example of this might be a lack of coordination in a team.
Everyone might be completing a key process in a different way. Get everyone round a whiteboard and map out the best way to complete that process step-by-step. With everyone's agreement, finalise the way that the team is going to execute the process. In time, evaluate the procedure. See if you need to modify any steps to mitigate any issues occurring in the future.
Make a judgement call on: what is going to be the quickest way to free up more time for improvement? For example, if you think one of the priority items is going to take 10 hours to resolve, it's going to free up 5 hours a week in time within two weeks, which could be put into continuous improvement. You’ll quickly see a return on investment.
Use Google to find information on the challenges you have. How have other people have solved the issue? Most business functions are the same, so it's likely that you're not alone. There is plenty of good off-the-shelf software out there, designed to solve very specific business challenges. They can offer a high return on investment. It is another easy win.
We would always recommend joining local scaleup programmes and groups, to share thoughts and gain tips.
Protect time for Continuous Improvement
Calculate the minimum amount of time your team is able to invest into continuous improvement and resolving issues. It’s important to get that toe hold to fix challenges and use the freed up time to snowball the effort.
Track your progress
As more time is released, set a business level KPI for the amount of time which is reinvested in continuous improvement. Monitor that on a quarterly basis. Allow anyone in the business to put a case forward for dedicating time to resolving a challenge or testing an opportunity. Make sure that it is definable what the return on investment is going to be.
Create a template where someone is able to summarise the challenge of opportunity and the resources required to execute it. Include the return on investment in terms of money or time. This allows the management team to quantify why the continuous improvement effort is valuable to the business. An alliance everyone's thinking ensures that continuous improvement has both positive and material outcomes. You could even think about linking it to a company wide bonus structure so everyone wins!
Make sure that you’re all on the same page
Everyone in the business needs to be clear on the challenges that the business is trying to solve. Put the issues into a framework, where they are tracked as part of quarterly objectives. Every member of staff can now see what to solve this quarter. They can then work towards solving those challenges themselves.
It is also vital to execute this plan from the top. The management team need to lead the change. They have to demonstrate how it's making peoples lives easier, so that it becomes a cultural initiative within the business.
It's important to understand that this effort is a marathon not a sprint. You are likely to see rapid improvements in the first quarter for example, because there are a lot of easy wins. However, the number of easy wins will probably dry up and the challenges may get it harder to solve. This is natural and it shouldn't be disparaging. It just means that you've prioritised your difficulties correctly.
There needs to be a consistent effort around continuous improvements, as well as protected time invested every month and every quarter. This ensures that progress marches forward. Doing this will prevent an increase in fire-fighting and you will reach a point where things become manageable. Why? Because the business is prioritising and solving issues every quarter, rather than letting these things build up.
Fire-fighting is a natural part of business and you can't eradicate it. But it is controllable. It can be even be used as an accelerant of growth!