Flow & the Bricklayer

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The scenario I present here is often something entrepreneurs face when bootstrapping a new business. Wearing many hats and attempting to please a handful of new (and valued) customers requires us to structure our business in ways that larger businesses would never think to do. At the beginning, optimized deal flow and workflow are sacrificed out of the sheer panic one has when taking these initial, risky steps. You’re a one-man-show, and you’ve got to make this spark blossom into a full-on flame. Then, and only then can you sit back and figure out ways to be more effective, and then more efficient. This is the story of the bricklayer who heads out on his own; no longer part of a large organization that took care of so many things for him, while he mastered what did best – bricklaying.

On day one he was ready to lay bricks, but realized he had no one to lay them for. The thought occurred to him that he had better learn how to generate some business for himself. Therefore, he stopped focusing on brick-laying, and began drumming up some business. Soon, he had two new customers, each of which he promised to make a scheduling priority. To make this work, he had to work twice as many hours. While laying bricks during the first part of the day, the other customer would call to talk about their project. Brick-laying for customer 1 halted while he put on his project manager hat and dealt with this issue. He had to keep them happy, after all.

Once that was taken care of, he stopped being a project manager and went back to laying bricks. At the end of the allotted portion of the day, he got in his truck and went to his second customer (the one who called earlier). He began laying bricks. Then, the first customer called, at which point he stopped laying bricks, put on his project manager hat and answered question about the bricks he had laid at his first customer’s site. Brick-laying at the second customer ground to a halt while he did this. Customer 1 wanted to show him something, so he packed up and went back to the first site.

Shortly thereafter, the second customer called wanting to know why he wasn’t working on their project, as promised. He informed them he’d be back as soon as possible. However, by the time he was done resolving the issue at the first site, he was exhausted and went home to sleep. He tossed and turned all night thinking about how he was going to find his next customer while juggling all of these various roles.

This simple story attempts to describe how we can quickly get ourselves into situations where we become ineffective. No matter how efficient you are, if you solve the wrong problem, and execute in such a fashion that flow is disrupted, you will quickly become overwhelmed and your customers will suffer. When your customers suffer, you will be penalized. The concept of flow comes out of the Lean world and suggests that one part of a system feeds another, perfectly. There is no waste. There is no anxiety. There is no waiting around.

For example, when the bricklayer is ready for more bricks, the correct amount are available – not more than the space can hold and not more than he can process. When he has completed his project, the next project is waiting for him – not 10 projects. As well, he will not have to wait for the next project (not 1 day – not 4 years). If it begins raining at one site, how much time will he waste transferring to the second site? What if it’s raining there as well? Double waste! I won’t go into what happens when he suddenly has older customers calling for break-fix work while he’s trying to execute a complex new project.

The concept of flow has proven to be a far more effective management tool than the more common place carrot & stick, “what, you can’t multi-task?” work. Fear will not motivate people, it will demotivate them. Rewards will be gamed at the expense of long term business goals. Designing a system that is balanced, manageable and measurable is the best known method for optimizing a business.

If you don’t have a system, what are you measuring? Are you measuring results, or are you measuring process? Are you measuring observable facts, or opinion? Do you know which combination you should be measuring? Are you managing people, or are you managing a system? Perhaps the bricklayer will eventually come to know this, if he is able to somehow simulate success with a broken system. If he does, he will never go back. If you’d like to see how systems impact a business, watch a show like Hotel Impossible on Travel Channel and you will see it in action. It’s entertaining, and you’ll learn something.

How many companies require their sales executives to:

  • Generate prospects
  • Qualify prospects
  • Enter them into their lead funnel
  • Re-qualify the leads
  • Perform discovery
  • Build a business case
  • Close the business

If you’re trying to close business, do you have time to manage an outbound lead development program? Are they worth the same to you? Can you cater to the needs of the different processes and customers adequately? The concept of flow would suggest that you cannot. When you’re at the end of a linear process, going back to earlier stages disrupts everything that comes after. As a closer, the next qualified lead should be ready for you when you need it. You shouldn’t have to stop, you shouldn’t have to wait. You’re the closer! The quality of that lead should be highly predictable; a capability you expect from your outbound and inbound lead development teams (they are separate, right?). A capable organization doesn’t fill the top of the funnel with junk and then hope, does it?

Do you view your organization as a system, built of inter-connected sub-systems and processes, methods and steps? Do you understand the concept of value-added steps and cost-added steps? Or do your people do everything, wear multiple hats, and thereby cause problems with flow? Does your marketing organization have a system for inbound attraction campaigns that is predictable? Has the hand-off of these prospects to your account executives been optimized? Do you send them too few leads? Do you send them too many? If so, are the highly convertible, or are they junk? Do you know where in the process your failures occur? Do you know what you do well in the process? The answer to these would dictate whether you hire more closers, or hire a new marketing department.

Look around you. If you see your sales executives surfing sports websites, they’re bored and flow is broken. If you send them too much junk, the kind that never closes, or the kind they don’t know how to convert, they will be anxious and flow is broken. I challenge you to look at any value-adding role in your organization (sales, marketing, fulfillment, etc.) and ask yourself whether you could improve flow. It might be time to stop relying on the randomness of people and build a system that’s far easier to manage and improve.

Next up: identifying waste and understanding the concept of value-adding and value-destroying activities.


This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

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