Running a Shop

How to Sustain Continuous Shop Growth

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A look at a simple tool to break through complexity.

Over the past year, I’ve written about how to improve and sustain a healthy shop culture. This month, I want to offer a simple tool that was recently shared with me that brings it all together.

I was talking to my friend, Jerry, who also happens to be business consultant. I shared how I felt like I keep hitting a ceiling in our shop’s growth. He asked me a few questions and then said, “Look, I want you to know out of the gate I am not trying to get a consulting gig with you, but I do have a simple tool I developed years ago that helped me through several seasons when I felt stuck in a similar way.” I said, “That’s great! I’m all ears!”

Jerry drew four squares with arrows from the first square to the next. Inside the first square he wrote “info gathering.” In the second, “challenge and opportunities.” In the third, “design plan.” And finally in the fourth, “execution.” In between each square he wrote the word, “learning.”

Jerry told me to start with information gathering, which is the most time consuming part. Of course, as a quick start who likes the, “ready, fire, aim” method, I wasn’t thrilled to hear that this process starts slowly. I think he could read my expression and already knew what I was thinking. He addressed it right away: “Don’t worry. Just because it starts slow doesn’t mean nothing is happening! As you go through step one, long before you get to step four, your team will already start taking action just because they hear you listening to them and paying attention to what they say. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.”

The first step in info gathering, he said, is to plan a 20-minute meeting with each person on your team and ask them four questions: What’s going well? What’s not going well? If you were in charge, what three things would you do right away? And, what advice would you give me?

“From here, you want to write down exact quotes of what people say,” Jerry told me. “You don’t have to capture every single word, but there will be some real gold that comes from these conversations and part of the process is to capture that gold with their words as much as possible.”

At this point, I already had a couple questions. I asked him, “What about the negative people? I already know what they are going to say and, honestly, I don’t want to hear it!”

Jerry was very direct and clear at this point: “They may have some really good points you need to hear. But if not, I wouldn’t worry about it too much because it won’t be your opinion against theirs. Remember you’re going to have direct quotes from a wide range of people and if you only have one or two naysayers, their negativity gets drowned out in step three.”

The final part of steps one and two are simply to collect all the quotes and information that was shared in the interviews and attempt to group it into themes. Once you’ve done that, you can create a document, or even a slide show, with the themes and quotes and that’s when you’re ready for the step three.

Jerry continued, “For step three, you’re going to ideally want a half day or day off site with your team.” At this point, he probably saw on my face how hard that would be to stop production for that long and get everyone off site. That is just not a luxury we have in this industry most of the time.

“Or maybe we can try to do this over a shop lunch,” I offered with a hint of a question mark at the end of my sentence.

“Sure, sure. If that’s all you can do then great! Just do what you can but make sure you leave enough time to share your themes and the quotes that led you to those themes,” he said. “Then leave a bit of time at the end to share what changes might be on the horizon based on this feedback. And then close the meeting by making it clear this is an ongoing process and they are free to ask more questions or offer feedback any time.”

Step four is simply taking action on the most important themes that emerged as challenges and opportunities. By this point in the process, you will have a clear sense of what is most important and what the initial steps need to be. This where the rubber meets the road.

Jerry ended the time by saying, “Look, the worst thing that is going to happen here is that you will have spent a good bit of time listening to your team and building relationships with all the people that help you get things done. But, I think you will be surprised at how much strategic insight you’ll get that will serve you for many months to come. Then when you hit another ceiling probably about a year or two later, just repeat this process. It’s a way for the organization to continuously improve and evolve toward greater health and profit.”

With that, I closed my notebook, thanked him and went straight to my shop and asked the first team member I saw, “Hey, do you have about 20 minutes that we can talk? I want to ask you a few questions and get some feedback on how we’re doing as company.” And so it begins.

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