Small Business Transition Blog


When does Business Transformation Begin?

There are a number of verses in both the Old and New Testaments that warn us against procrastination. Later on they were amalgamated and paraphrased by Benjamin Franklin in his famous proverb, “Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

Dentists tell us to care for our teeth, and brush them several times each day. Physicians tell us to maintain a healthy diet, and exercise regularly. Retirement advisers tell us to start saving for our “golden years” with the very first paycheck we receive, and every paycheck thereafter. And stockbrokers tell us to buy low and sell high.

All good advice which most of us, most of the time, ignore until it is too late, me included.

I was first exposed to the time and motion studies of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth as a pre-teen through the 1950 Technicolor film, “Cheaper by the Dozen”. My memory recalls black-and-white images, so I must have first viewed the movie on one of those afternoon matinée shows that were so popular on the local commercial television stations of my youth.

I had just started to read of my own initiative. I recall going to the library the next day to see if they had a copy of the book for me to borrow. I think I read about half of it before I actually checked it out of the library, just sitting in one of the big, well-worn leather chairs they kept around for leisurely browsing. It evokes the strong and comforting aromatic recollection of faintly musky old books and linseed oil.

It’s a vivid early adolescent memory. I’m sure I re-read my favorite passages over-and-over until the book was due to be returned. I sometimes wonder if the beginnings of my interest in process improvement and efficiency were planted at that time and place.

One particular passage of the book that made a lasting impression on me was the account of how the Gilbreth children learned to type. I was very impressed, but apparently not so mesmerized that I did anything about it. When the time came to learn to type in Junior High School, I found some other, less demanding elective to fill my time. There was no thought given by me to a possible future need for the skill.

More than fifty years later, I still type with two fingers like the old fuddy-duddy I am and ignore my wife’s harangues about my failure to learn how to touch-type lo’ these many years.

You do not wait to learn to type in your mid-sixties. You do not start caring for your teeth when you have begun to seriously lose them. You do not begin exercising and eating a well-balanced diet when you are obese and have full-blown Type-2 diabetes. You do not wait to start saving for your retirement when you hit 50. You do not buy high and sell low.

Most certainly, you do not start thinking about business transformation when you and your employees are working 12 - 18 hour days and into the weekend. Six and seven-day work weeks where everyone is occupied in both their regular workload, as well as the additional business development activities of chasing down new business partners, new work, and writing new proposals. Neither do you start planning your transition move when you begin thinking about making the jump from small business status to something grander.

Transformation, when done correctly, is incremental, not abrupt.

For all of its allure as an immense cornucopia of potential business income, being in business with the government is unlike any other commercial relationship. It is subject to the whims of politicians who make the laws by which governmental commerce is administered, as well as overworked and harried bureaucrats who are more often than not well beyond their professional depth. In a world whose pace of change increases exponentially every year, small business contractors can be flying high one year and then suddenly fold with a single lost contract.

Almost every government contract will contain some type of "Termination for Convenience" clause. Additional clauses abound. The standard "Changes" and "Default" clauses--mentioning only two--also lurk within. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Cost Principles set forth in FAR Part 31 and the FAR Cost Accounting Standards that must be followed if the small business is operating as a subcontractor to a larger company.

As a small business grows in size and complexity, the internal processes created to manage daily, weekly and monthly inputs and outputs very quickly become outmoded. At first, small workarounds are created. Quickly these workarounds take on a life of their own, much like the owner who makes haphazard room additions to their home.

What was once neat and comfortable soon becomes an ill-fitted monstrosity, unrecognizable, eccentric and challenging to navigate.

All of which takes time, the one thing that small businesses trying to survive do not have. Approximately fifty percent of all small businesses fall by the wayside within the first five years of their operation. To survive as a small business there needs to be efficiency and effectiveness, where every minute of effort produces income, connections, or industry knowledge that demonstrates past performance.

Figuring out how to maximize time means that your business must begin building a business capable of reacting--or better yet accurately predicting--significant external changes. The small business owner must quickly respond with an immediate workaround, and then--once the temporary workaround proves to be stable--immediately begin on the creation or purchase of a permanent, more integrated solution.

Rather than staying with a workaround process long past its usefulness, business leaders must build a culture of continuous improvement within and then hold themselves accountable for any failures during the sometimes painful learning experience that ensues.

It is the habit of continuous improvement--despite the fact that it is initially uncomfortable, bothersome, and almost always painful--that is important. And like all the other pieces of good advice handed down to us immemorial, you ignore it and push it off into the misty future at your peril.

© Mark Lefcowitz 2014 - 2018
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