Many industries experience "shoulder periods." These are the time periods leading up to and away from the peak volumes. Figuring out how to manage these periods can be a difficult task for managers, but it’s also very important for realizing performance improvement gains.
When managers or performance-improvement teams try to "streamline" resource requirements (e.g., labor, equipment, space, etc.), they do this by figuring out what they have to do (activities); how much time it takes (time standard); and how often they have to do it (volume). Usually the biggest variable is volume. If the business has any kind of seasonality or variability, which of course many do, an average volume based on the total year could be too high one-half the time, and too low the other half. So companies build resource and production plans in order to forecast volume and determine their resource needs as they operate throughout the year.
Variability is tough to manage. If your peak volumes are in October and November, when do you add staff and when do you reduce staff? Or can you do this at all? What if the skills required are not easy to find? If you ignore the variability and carry a fixed staffing level, your productivity will be high for two months and naturally drop during the other 10 months. Will attrition take care of any of this imbalance? If you cut hours or lay off staff, will they go to competitors or get other jobs? What if you can't find enough qualified people when you need them and then miss your volumes and damage your service reputation? These are all very difficult questions that managers have to answer.
We've used "months" as a peak time period, but to make this issue even more complicated many functional areas have shoulder periods throughout the month (e.g., accounting), throughout the week (e.g., medical labs), or even throughout the day (e.g., restaurants). If you don't manage these shoulder periods carefully, it's very easy to see the productivity gained during peak periods offset by the productivity lost at other times.
Over the years, one of the things we've noticed is that each new manager tends to create new reports, for whatever purpose they have at the time. Old reports are not eliminated, so over time there are a mountain of available reports – and a mountain of performance indicators -- in the system. But like a software program with too many features, this is not necessarily helpful. Sometimes it's just confusing.
One of the hardest things about management is knowing what you should be focusing on. What specific key indicators are most important to ensure that your area of responsibility is achieving its core objectives? As consultants, we are sometimes part of the problem: we can become enamored with "drilling down" into issues and have a tendency to build too many metrics into operating reports. This can overwhelm management and fragment their focus, rather than help concentrate it.
We generally believe that people are most effective when they focus on just three things. When looking at reports and key performance indicators, use this rule as a starting point. As a manager, if there were only three indicators that you could focus on, what would they be? Culling a lengthy list of indicators down to your critical three is not only very illuminating, it can also help you figure out what reports you need or don't need.
Tell us your three indicators in the comments section of our blog!
Growing sales volume with existing accounts is sometimes referred to as "increasing your share of wallet," but it's actually not a very good description -- or even objective. We've found that companies are generally most successful increasing sales volume with existing accounts when those accounts are themselves growing, and they manage to maintain a share of that wallet.
Many companies are not great at increasing the "share of wallet" for three main reasons. The first reason is that this means taking business directly away from competitors. The harsh truth is that companies tend to think that their products’ (or service’s) advantages are more distinct than their customers do. The unfortunate result is that stealing business away from competitors often leads to lowering prices, which in turn damages profitability. The second reason is that customers often intentionally divide their purchases between alternate sources to optimize their leverage and reduce risk. The third reason is that sometimes companies try to increase their "share of wallet" by broadening their offerings, but this can confuse their customer. Unless your business is lucky enough to be some type of monopoly or oligopoly, where customers have little choice (e.g., a telecommunications company), it's difficult to get customers to believe you can be a leading provider in different, distinct categories. In the management consulting industry, for example, if you are known for operational performance improvement work, it's hard to sell strategy or IT consulting, even if you are capable of delivering it.
Despite the hurdles, the concept of growing sales volumes with existing customers is appealing because it's "friendly terrain." Your customers already know you and presumably like you. Salespeople usually prefer calling and visiting existing customers for the same reasons. To gain share from existing customers, you need very good intelligence about their requirements (e.g., a specific "inventory" of their purchases that you don't -- but could -- get), and a clear rationale for why your product or service adds value to their business.
It's possible to gain share of your customers’ wallets without just lowering your prices to "buy" the volume, but often it's a better bet to figure out which of your customers are growing -- and make sure you look after them well.
Pricing is the most powerful way to improve profit without the need for large-scale culture change. It is often said that a 1% improvement in price is worth a 10% improvement in productivity. Given that there is so much effort involved in trying to raise productivity by 10%, it's somewhat surprising that price isn't the first thing performance improvement groups focus on. But like the problem that many start-ups experience when they use similar math -- "All we need to be profitable is a 1% market share" -- getting that 1% gain can be very difficult.
Pricing is often something of a black art in many organizations. Many apply some kind of cost-plus-logic to determine their prices, but even the underlying costing methodology is a little cryptic (e.g., what costs are allocated). Many other companies set their prices based on what they believe the market can bear or based on what their competitors are charging. Actual negotiated pricing is often highly variable and can be significantly influenced by the size of the customer, what competitors do in bid situations, what procurement departments demand, the size and scale of the sale, future opportunities, etc. Prices are also influenced by personal relationships and even sales compensation plans. All of these factors result in a range in which prices for a certain product or service can vary.
Much like waste in a process, the opportunity in pricing lies in the variation. Raising prices is notoriously hard in many industries, so the key to remember is that the profit lever is average price. So focus on what we call "price optimization." The objective is to increase the average price, not to raise prices. If you can reduce any of your discounting, you can reduce the variation and improve the average price, all other things being equal.
The key question, then, is to ask and to study: Who actually controls pricing? Often, pricing control is distributed throughout an organization, and various people are allowed to discount from a benchmark. Identify where prices are discounted and try to understand what is driving that behavior. If you can tighten the parameters around who has the authority and how much can be discounted, you can reduce price variation and improve your average price. The more complex part for a project-based initiative is that the consequences are often felt at an aggregate level fairly high up in the organization, well after the price has been discounted. It's difficult to manage this gap between action and consequence.
There are only two basic ways to increase your sales volumes: find more customers and/or sell more to existing customers. There is a little more complexity when you dig into the numbers (e.g., market growth rate, customer churn, etc.), but they are basically the two ways to grow volume.
Therefore sales organizations generally require two types of salespeople, sometimes referred to as farmers and hunters. Farmers service existing accounts, doing their best to maintain or grow the base volume of business, whereas hunters have to find and sell new accounts.
Many sales initiatives are designed to increase volumes but, in practice, whether or not you are trying to find new customers or increase volumes with existing customers makes a big difference in the project approach. It's also worth noting that not many people are both farmers and hunters. They each have very different social styles, and trying to turn farmers into hunters (or vice versa) is usually not a recipe for success.
If you need to win new accounts, the key lever to focus on is lead generation. Where and how do you find the "Glengarry leads”? For those who haven’t seen the movie "Glengarry Glen Ross," these are the leads every salesperson wants, the top-prospect accounts. Many sales- improvement initiatives focus their energy on increasing the productivity of sales reps (increasing their calls per day for example), but this is not overly helpful for finding new accounts; it's actually better for the farming side of the business. We also often see a focus on the later stages of the funnel (e.g., proposal writing, handling objections, closing, etc.). All of these are important, but they tend to get attention because they are more tangible and immediate. The real leverage comes from the top end of the funnel. How can you secure quality leads and make sure they get into the hands of your best hunters?
The best way to grow new accounts is to make sure that your organization has a very clearly defined lead-generation process and to make sure those leads are carefully and deliberately managed through the sales funnel. The added benefit of this approach is that it’s also the best way to increase the productivity of your hunters (i.e., fill their schedule with quality leads). Growing volume with existing accounts requires a different focus, which we look at in the next Observation.
How to improve sales performance is a challenge for most businesses. Companies try many things to improve the average selling skills of their organization. They try training programs, special incentives, head hunters, one-on-one coaching, and sophisticated CRM systems. But year in and year out, some people just sell more than others.
Great salespeople are often difficult to find. They have certain intangibles that make it hard for them -- and hard for a manager -- to decipher what it actually is that makes them so good.
In the next few Observations, we'll share some ideas about a few things that organizations can do to improve sales. The first area we will examine is the actual sales interaction: what salespeople say or do that helps them be more successful. As a manager, how do you identify and replicate the subtle things that successful salespeople do? One useful approach is to identify your best and your worst performers, study what they do, and then look for patterns, gaps and variances.
We did this when working for a well-known retail shoe store that targeted mostly male business professionals. We first looked at the data to try to determine who the most successful salespeople were. Pure sales totals weren’t necessarily the single best indicator, because there were fairly large variances in traffic volumes, due to the "attractiveness" of various locations. So we looked a little closer to see who had the best conversion rates, i.e., the percentage of people who entered the store and then the percentage who actually bought shoes. This was not an easy task, in this case, because there was no clean "traffic" number available.
Once we identified the most successful and the least successful salespeople, we observed them closely to see if there were any tangible differences in their interaction with shoppers. It turns out there were many, in terms of when they approached a shopper, what they said, how they described shoes and what they got the customer to do. The correlation we were able to identify was an interesting one, although it sounds more obvious in hindsight. The most successful salespeople convinced shoppers to sit down and try on a pair of shoes. The "investment" of physically trying on a pair of shoes seemed to make people want to complete the transaction. This may be partly explained, in this case, by the time-oriented nature of many business professionals and their general dislike of the entire shoe-shopping process. Once they had committed the time and energy to try on shoes, they wanted to complete the process and move on.
This is a powerful insight because it gives you something to focus your training and skill development on. The real skill required in this particular environment was the salesperson's ability to convince someone to invest their time. You will still have some people who are more persuasive than others, but borrowing some of the best practices from the top salespeople for a specific outcome can broaden the organization's selling capabilities.
Performance improvement requires a change in management behavior at all levels. Changes in management behavior are the most difficult to achieve and often the hardest to sustain. With behavioral change, there is usually a high degree of elasticity, and it is very common for managers to want to revert to the way things were done before. When a performance-improvement project is underway, there is a heightened intensity and expectation that managers will change their patterns of behavior. When the project ends, there is a degree of relief at all levels, and some of the intensity naturally dissipates.
The simple truth is that it is more difficult to operate at a higher level of performance. It requires more planning and more active management. As a common adage says, "Lowering the water level exposes the rocks," meaning managers must actively problem solve as they no longer have a resource buffer.
The real responsibility for sustainability always falls on executive leadership, because of the need for continual reinforcement. Although most system and process changes directly affect front line levels, front line managers simply do not have sufficient authority to sustain the integrity of the changes. The key red flag to watch for is a systematic decline in accountability. Plans are consistently missed and poor performance is rationalized. The fact that plans are missed is not nearly as much of a concern as rationalizing poor performance. Highly competitive companies are very serious about the plans they set and go to great lengths to understand and scrutinize variances. It may be that the plans were flawed or that there were operating problems, but the key is to dig to uncover them. Organizations that grow accustomed to accepting rationalizations without uncovering the root cause of variances have a difficult time performing at increasingly competitive levels. You can observe how variances are handled by different levels of management in many common situations (e.g., through daily, weekly or monthly performance reviews).
Another critical area to watch, when reviewing management behavior, is the budgeting process. Negotiating budget levels can become more of an exercise in managing compensation expectations, rather than keeping an organization’s financial and operating worlds in sync. Budgets and operating plans can quickly lose their alignment, which throws out the integrity of the underlying management tools.
Management system changes often entail tightening up the planning standards that are used to schedule the operations, and then providing managers with tools to control, monitor and report on attainment to the plan. The efficacy of management systems depends on the integrity of the numbers placed into the system, and the use of the system information to make decisions about the business. Most system problems stem from inaccurate planning parameters, late scheduling changes of one kind or another, and the resulting tendency of management to disregard or somewhat arbitrarily modify the schedules that are produced.
The red flags we look for when reviewing how effectively changes in the management system have stayed in place include:
- Forecasts are considered inaccurate and do not directly feed the resource plan.
- Managers stop using the resource plan to determine resource levels (e.g., they disregard recommended staffing levels).
- The planning parameters within the resource plan (e.g., expected performance) no longer match the business-plan assumptions.
- New activities change the business process, but the planning standards are not updated and become obsolete.
- New managers are hired or promoted, but are not trained to manage with the system.
- Daily performance reviews do not have an agenda, become irregular or do not discuss specific performance by area and causes of variances.
- Visual performance charts are kept not up to date.
- Performance targets are not updated in operating reports and/or do not reflect the resource plan.
The management system is arguably the most important tool that executives have to hold onto improvement gains and to build on those higher levels of performance. Executives play a very important role in making sure that management systems keep their integrity. Unfortunately, they are often part of the problem, intentionally or not, as we discuss in the next Observation. Stay tuned!
Implementing change requires reconfiguring processes - and modifying the management systems and behaviors that need to accompany them. But as anyone who has ever tried to instill change knows, maintaining those gains can be very difficult. There is always a natural tendency to revert to the way things were. After the completion of a project, we go back to the organization and review how well the changes have sustained. We've learned that there are some signals that can indicate that improvements are starting to erode. We call these signals "red flags."
It is critical to watch for red flags, because performance improvements are always made up of many small changes, not just one large change. If you let the small changes gradually fall away, a cascading affect can gradually erase the overall gains that were achieved. In the next few Observations, we highlight some of the tell-tale signs we look for when reviewing the sustainability of changes.
Process changes refer to some type of modification of how work is processed from input to an output. Examples include changing the sequence of the process, removing steps that are deemed unnecessary, combining work functions, changing equipment or modifying speeds. The more concrete the process change, the easier it is to sustain. For example, physically changing the layout of equipment (and order of operations) is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. Once in place, it is likely to sustain because of the difficulty of reverting back to old methods. The more complex and difficult process changes to sustain are the ones that require management intervention.
Many process changes require monitoring and compliance, e.g., increasing speeds on a line operation, or staggering shift starts or working through breaks. These types of changes require management follow up to ensure they remain in place. The red flags associated with these kinds of changes are usually simple noncompliance.
In the case of the examples above, red flags would be:
- Speeds begin to return to former levels
- Shift starts slowly lose their staggering
- Machines are shut down more frequently during breaks
It's fairly easy to see these red flags after the fact, but sometimes the seepage is gradual and more difficult to notice than you might think. One of the difficulties is that there are always good reasons why process changes gradually erode. It takes perseverance to "stay the course” and it often requires active problem solving.
It's not easy for any operation to go through a performance improvement change. Consultants love to say that people should: "Work smarter, not harder," but that can be a false dichotomy. We aren't big fans of the expression because we think it subtly implies that you can get something for nothing. Sometimes working smarter does mean working harder. It certainly means you're working differently.
Take the analogy of losing weight to explain performance improvement. Part of the equation for losing weight is to stop eating foods that aren't healthy for you (that’s the “work smarter” part), but another key is to be more active and get some exercise, so you burn more calories than you take in (that’s the “work harder” part). If you streamline a process by removing recurring daily obstacles, it can be misleading to suggest that working harder isn't also sometimes necessary. If a process constantly breaks down leaving a person with little to do, fixing the problem may result in that person working more. The majority of people we observe have no objection to putting in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay; it's the recurring problems that frustrate them and that make work tedious. Fixing those problems creates a better environment and may also help foster more employee engagement.
"Working smarter" for a front line manager often means becoming more involved in the scheduling of work and following up on the process. It may be a matter of semantics whether or not this is technically "harder" than previous behaviors. In our experience it usually means a more focused committed diligence is required. To return to the weight-loss analogy, it usually takes more discipline to stick to a healthier regimen. At least initially, managers may find these new requirements "harder" because they aren't familiar with them and because they change their patterns of behavior. The object is to be a healthier, lean organization, but it's a mistake to underestimate the actual change required for many people.
A better expression might be: "Work smarter to be more productive." It's just not very catchy.