An old adage which has been traced back to the late 50s states that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.” In government and big corporations, committees can be used effectively to explore or investigate, to create, and to problem-solve. But, they can also be used to sidetrack, delay, and thwart forward progress on an issue. Many small businesses rarely, if ever, utilize committees to address problems, and in some cases in may be because the owner/CEO doesn’t know quite how to go about it. Here's a model that may be adaptable to your company or your situation.
The first premise is that, as the leader of the organization, your primary job is to set and stay the course of the business towards both long-term and short-term goals. So, the more time you spend putting out fires or solving problems yourself means less time on your primary duties. Especially in difficult economic times, many CEOs feel their value to the company has changed from Ship’s Captain to jack-of-all-trades as they bounce among departments trying to deal with a myriad of issues.
Second, the CEO is often the least-qualified to address specific problems at the working level because he/she is not involved with those processes on a frequent basis or in any detail. That means ramp-up time for a learning curve before the problem can even be tackled, and with incomplete information, the best solution may elude the boss.
Finally, in just about every case, the best-qualified people to fix something are those who work with it routinely, but what is frequently lacking is a true understanding of how each person’s role impacts others in the process.
Consider this true case history of a pastry manufacturer with a severe QC problem. Too many orders being received by Customer Service were being sent out wrong: right product, but wrong flavor or wrong product, but right flavor, or labeling that didn’t match the package contents, along with problems of quantity and size of products. Because of the traditional vertical “walls” between the functions, everyone in the process had a very narrow view of their role and just performed their step without consideration of what else might be amiss. But, the biggest problem was that the CEO admitted he was spending half of his time trying to fix his QC issue with little success and a lot of overtime.
So, the CEO created a “Quality Improvement Committee” comprised of someone from Customer Service, Preparation, Baking, Finishing, Packaging, and Shipping. He began with the CS rep as chairman, but the role was rotated by vote of the committee members (in his case, at six-month intervals). He gave them the responsibility to fix the QC problems, and the authority to do it: anything the group agreed upon would be implemented. Guess what? They stumbled a few times, but the majority of their calls were right on the button. They worked to tear down the departmental distinctions and improve understanding throughout the process of everyone’s individual contribution…and everyone’s opportunity to identify glitches early with an easy mechanism to report and correct them.
What was the committee members’ incentive? A financial pool set aside by the CEO to award quarterly bonuses calculated on a rating scale created by the committee: the greater the improvement, the higher the bonus to all members. In just six months, the dollar savings by elimination of production and shipping errors was far greater than the bonuses paid out. By nine months, a couple of physical walls had been torn down and some responsibilities shifted among groups, and the QC index was up in the high 90s.
But, here’s the challenge, Small Business Owner. When money is tight, efficiency and productivity are even more important because every dollar of cost you incur comes off the bottom-line. Consider forming a committee to examine ways to improve or streamline your operations. It won’t take up a lot of employee time, but it will likely free up much of yours. You can find some dollars somewhere to put into an incentive fund, and even just one breakthrough improvement will make your investment worthwhile. But, you’ve got to give authority along with the responsibility (something small biz owners sometimes have difficulty doing). Maybe they’ll fumble, but they’re down where the rubber meets the road and they’re more likely to get it right than you are. And, talk about a morale-booster! Just keep it to one committee at a time; you don’t want to divert too much manpower simultaneously from your primary mission.
Try it, and you’ll see that the right few heads are better than one. Instead of a camel, you may end up with a thoroughbred!