Look for Ways to do Things Better

Aug 09, 1999

Most of us will never get rich quick. We won’t have a single breakthrough discovery that makes us millions. We won’t win the lottery. We won’t have a rich aunt who leaves us her art collection. We won’t get one client that takes care of the company for 20 years. That’s just the way it is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get rich slowly. Many times, the key to making this happen is to make incremental improvements in all areas of our business so that it becomes more efficient, more profitable, and easier to run, and it grows in revenues and value. I find that in the typical A/E or environmental consulting firm, real opportunities to do things better present themselves daily. But for whatever reason, firm principals are so close to the forest that they can’t see the trees. These aren’t always major changes. Sometimes they are small things that yield big results. In order to act on them, you have to be aware of these opportunities for change when they come up. Here are some examples of what I am talking about: Staff turnover. Most of us think it’s awful when someone quits, especially if it is someone who was quietly doing his or her job without complaint. It is a loss, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Take a look at what that person was actually doing. This is especially critical for those working in administrative support areas. Was it all really necessary? How many people was this person servicing? Was he or she overpaid based on the function that he or she was performing at time of departure? Is there a better place to house this person so that office space isn’t wasted? Is there any way the job could be carved up and put in the hands of others that may be underutilized or better qualified to do the job that needs to be done? I would make sure that I took a look at each of these possibilities before adding this opening to the company’s “staff vacancy” list. Accounting. Lots of firms have too many people in accounting. These areas build up and then automation occurs that should allow them to do more with fewer staff, yet it rarely works out that way. Instead, they keep the same staff and tolerate the same poor performance when it comes to how long it takes to close out the month or get a bill out. Unacceptable! Forms and meetings. When architects and engineers say their number-one pet peeve is office bureaucracy, why is adding a form or holding a meeting usually the first thing we consider when it comes to solving a problem? Try cutting back on forms and using Post-It notes or e-mail instead. Try cutting back on meetings and using e-mail or discussions between the two people who really need to talk. You may find that this frees up a lot of time to do other things that make money! Pricing policies and practices. Maybe you should be updating all of your billing rates twice a year instead of once. This could add 3% to the top line, which falls right through to the bottom line. Maybe you should insist that all reimbursables be marked up by 15% or you don’t do the job. That could add to profits, as long as you have enough clients waiting to hire you. Which jobs that you are now treating as hourly can be done on a fixed fee? How much can you really charge to do a given job? My experience is that we spend too much time thinking about how to make our production more efficient and not enough time thinking about how we can charge more for what we do! Files. Why do some firms still allow their project managers to file any way they want to? It’s crazy! There should be standards for naming files, standards for subdirectories within files, and standards for what goes in the files. And all files should be available to anyone who needs to look in them. We waste so much time looking for information in this industry that it is absolutely crazy not to pay attention to this subject on a firm-wide basis and fix it once and for all! I could go on and on! The fact is that all of these little fixes may just add up to a firm that grows, makes more money, and is a better and more fun place to work. Nothing wrong with that! Originally published 8/9/99

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