Burn away business clutter

Jan 28, 2024

If you can clear out the unnecessary underbrush, you will benefit from a staff that can finally breathe, see new paths, and move your firm forward.

There is a forestry term called controlled or prescribed burning. A controlled burn is a fire set on purpose to reduce underbrush buildup, control competing vegetation, and improve accessibility. It can also have the benefit of returning nutrients to the soil from the ashes of the burnt brush. In addition, fire can be rejuvenating in that the additional sunlight and open space in a forest can help young trees and other plants start to grow.

So, does your business need a controlled burn? Over time, most businesses tend to accumulate processes, weekly reports, regular scheduled meetings, and more. And what I have often found is that people cannot remember what some of these are supposed to be accomplishing. Just look for the smirks and the eye-rolling next time that weekly meeting rolls around. We all still laugh at the famously quoted scene in the 1999 movie Office Space when Lumbergh scolds Peter for not using the new cover sheet on his TPS reports. As funny as these brief moments may be, they all take time away from what we need to be doing.

Just as scrub underbrush and weeds steal nutrients from healthy timber, these unnecessary items are taking energy away from your staff for productive activities and accomplishing what your business aims to achieve. However, I am not advocating cutting all existing activities; this would lead to chaos and anarchy as managers all pursued their own objectives. What I am proposing is clearing out the things that are hindering your business from moving forward.

Here are three things you can do to restore some health to your business:

  1. Step back and remind yourself of the purpose of your business, the objective of your project, or the task at hand. Working backwards, you can begin eliminating each process, report, or meeting that does not help achieve that purpose. Maybe that TPS cover sheet really is necessary, but only if it provides a concise and needed summary for leadership who don’t have time to read the full report.
  2. Once you have made this initial purge of the unnecessary, take a harder look at the remaining items and see if there is a more efficient way to accomplish your goal or provide the information. Can a brief memo provide an update and replace the regularly scheduled meeting where managers recite the same financial information? Does software you are already using provide a report similar to that circulated spreadsheet that clutters everyone’s inbox?
  3. Finally, you need to have the same conversation with your clients. Looking back, some of my greatest efficiency frustrations come from outside the office. For starters, this often includes too many review submittals. We all know each submittal takes time to assemble, check, and document changes in addition to the future follow-up and client meeting that will be necessary. But before you complain to your client, be ready to understand their needs and be prepared to explain how streamlining the process is beneficial to their schedule and plan.

Much like how the open space in a forest can help young trees, as you clear out the unnecessary in your office you will find that the additional freedom starts to grow new ideas. This is especially true of the younger staff who up until now have felt hindered by “this is the way we have always done it” responses. Give them room and fresh air to bring their ideas forward and grow. In hindsight, isn’t this how most of the processes were created years ago? They will find this refreshing. This is also true for your mid-level managers. In our office, I promoted a term called “structured flexibility.” I would set requirements (every project needed a budget, schedule, and work plan) without forcing a particular format. This provided flexibility for managers to find the best way forward without hindering them with restrictions.

As with most improvements, the best time to start was yesterday. But it is never too late to begin working on the health of your business. If you can clear out any of the unnecessary underbrush, you will benefit from a staff that finally can breathe, see new paths, and start moving the company forward again.

Greg Sepeda, retired, was formerly chief engineer and vice president of operations at Sigma Consulting Group, Inc. (a Waggoner Company). Contact him at gpsepeda@gmail.com.

About Zweig Group

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