Changing a process? Check that it’s working!

Changing a process? Check that it’s working!

Changing a process is never easy, but it’s even more challenging when you need to do it quickly. And in the pandemic conditions at the time of writing the truth is that most of us – including the government – are having to ‘make it up as we go along’.

Which means – inevitably – that things don’t always work out the way you want them to.

A good friend has been organising his volunteer group to support the community, and in particular their village shop. They’re helping out with taking orders and delivering supplies to people in lockdown. And they’re also collecting orders from suppliers – including an excellent local bakery.

A job my friend took upon himself, but had never done before.

New volunteers, new job, new mistakes…

On the first day he arrived at the bakery and was told there were four trays to collect. A staff member – somewhat engaged with a customer – pointed to a stack of four trays on the floor. Which he duly picked up and took back. On arrival it turned out that two of them were part of someone else’s order…

Well, at least it gave his otherwise idle car a good run (by the time he’d delivered the two trays to their intended destination, collected the two for his own village, and brought them back to the shop…)

He duly issued a warning to other volunteers to check each order very carefully before leaving the bakery.

A warning that sadly did not reach a new volunteer, who was collecting bread for the first time a week later. And walked away with only two of the four trays he should have had.

When my friend went back for his next collection he politely suggested they could label the trays to avoid confusion. Sadly the bakery staff were more concerned with avoiding blame. Even though he’d already said he wasn’t interested in blaming anybody. He simply wanted to prevent any more mistakes…

The lesson?

This is a classic case of faulty plumbing. The bakery were simply ‘doing what they’d always done’ without taking into account that volunteers had no idea what that was, or how it worked. Their staff were frightened, busy and preoccupied, so they felt stressed and vulnerable. When – inevitably – something went wrong, they assumed someone must be to blame. No one really was. The problem, quite simply, was in the system. It wasn’t designed for volunteers.

So if you’re changing a process in the middle of a crisis, don’t feel bad if things don’t work first time. Mistakes are bound to happen. The trick is to learn from them – and to stop them happening again.

In the meantime – in those especially challenging moments – be kind to yourself, your team, and everyone else. Stay safe, and stay well!

And there’s no charge if you need some help…

These are challenging times – so I am happy to help you review what you do, how you do it, and how you might deal with any glitches. I can do it virtually, via phone calls and online conference software, and I am happy to do it FREE OF CHARGE to help any business in the current situation. Just call 01359 240717 or email (You can buy me a coffee some other time…)

Giving instructions (because no, it’s not obvious…!)

Giving instructions (because no, it’s not obvious…!)

Giving instructions to other people can be a bit of a minefield.

Take ‘Boil the water’, for example. Simple enough, you’d think, even for a child. Except a child won’t know what ‘boiling water’ actually looks like.

So the (irritating) result is likely to be a series of interruptions by a small person saying ‘Is it boiling yet?’

The answer, of course, is to explain what ‘boiling water’ actually looks like. And give the necessary safety lecture at the same time. But you might not do the same if you’re giving instructions to an adult. And when they’re struggling, it’s all too easy to respond with disparaging comments on their commitment and their capabilities.

The truth is that if it’s a task you’re very familiar with, it’s blindingly obvious how to do it. To you. Others may see it differently…

When men didn’t cook…

I’m reminded of one of my earliest memories…

I was sitting with my Mum and my newborn baby sister. My Dad came in with a saucepan of peeled potatoes – and asked what to do next.

Mum told him to put the pan on the gas.

‘But – won’t that burn the pan?’ he asked, with a worried expression.

‘Not,’ said Mum, acidly, ‘if you put water in first.’

He looked, if anything, even more worried. ‘But… how much water?’

‘Enough!’ said Mum.

‘Enough to…?’

‘To cover the potatoes!’ she snapped.

She was annoyed, understandably. But the truth was that he’d never, in his life, cooked a meal before. So it was important, for him, to have someone giving instructions he could understand.

Sound familiar?

It’s all too easy to get annoyed when someone fails to understand apparently simple instructions. And the results, sadly, are predictable.

Option one: the experienced person will give up, and do the job themselves. In which case they are doomed to continue doing it for ever after.

Or option two: the inexperienced person will be left to struggle on as best they can. In which case the results may well be less than wonderful.

Either way, there are two additional and very predictable results. The experienced person will be left believing their colleague is ‘playing dumb’, perhaps to avoid doing the work. And the inexperienced person will feel inadequate, frustrated, and resentful. Because they haven’t received the support they need.

So – is there an alternative?

Of course there is!

The art of giving instructions…

  1. The two people (or the two teams, or the two businesses) need to get together.
  2. They then need to work through the list of tasks that have to be done.
  3. At each stage they should check that both understand a) what needs doing and b) how to do it.

That should, at very least, minimise the problems.

Does this take time?  Yes.

Can you afford not to?  Only you can decide.

One thing is certain – if you keep thinking that anything about a task, or a process, is ‘obvious’ then you won’t even see there’s a question to answer…

So if you’d like a simple set of instructions for – well – creating a simple set of instructions, then why not buy me a cup of coffee? And we’ll discuss what I can do and how I can help. Just call 01359 240717 or email

Client wanting extras? Then mirror, signal, manoeuvre…

Client wanting extras? Then mirror, signal, manoeuvre…

It happens to tradespeople all the time. You’re on site, doing what you’ve been asked to do… and suddenly your client says ‘Could you just…?’ Yes, we’re talking about chargeable extras – and how you deal with them.

Let’s say you’re a naturally helpful person. (Of course you are, because you care about your clients and your reputation.) So you say ‘Yes, no problem!’ and put it on your ‘to do’ list.

So far, so good.

You’ve done the extras. It’s taken you additional time (and may have landed you with additional costs). Naturally you put it on your invoice.

Which the client then disputes. ‘This isn’t the price we agreed!’

That’s exactly what happened to one of my clients – so I suggested a small process improvement.

‘Next time,’ I said, ‘by all means say “yes”. But then say “Do you need a quote for that, or shall I just add it to the final bill?”‘

The other day I was chatting about this to Michael Collett of Collett Creative. As a website designer this is a problem he often faces himself – so he told me how he deals with it. I was so impressed that I asked if I could share his approach here. And being someone who cares about his clients and his reputation, he happily said ‘Yes’…

So – do you remember what you learned from your driving instructor…?


So – your client has asked you to make a change. Or to do something that is outside their original brief. Before you say ‘Yes’, take a quick look in the virtual mirror and check. Make sure it’s safe to proceed – and don’t rush. Take all the time you need to be sure you understand what they are asking for, and precisely how much extra work, and extra cost, that will require.


So – you’ve done your checks, and you’ve decided you are happy to go ahead with the additional work. Time to talk to the client. Tell them you’re OK with it – and, at the same time, tell them about any additional costs these extras will involve. Signal, very clearly, what those costs will be, and that you need their approval before you go ahead. Don’t even think about starting the extra work until you’ve had their clear agreement. Because you need to be 100% sure they’ve formally accepted your terms.


Once you’ve had formal confirmation, you can safely manoeuvre. Add the cost of the extras to the project total. Complete the task in full. And don’t forget to add it to the invoice…!

And if your business could benefit from a small refresher course (or possibly a new version of its very own Highway Code) then I’d be happy to have a chat over coffee. To discuss what I can do and how I can help. Just call 01359 240717 or email

Noises from the plumbing…

Noises from the plumbing…

Say you have a team that doesn’t gel, or a person who won’t cooperate with everyone else. What do you do? I find it helpful to regard any shouting matches, or a high volume of complaints, as noises from the plumbing. This immediately stops me regarding it as a people issue, and starts me thinking, instead, of the system (the plumbing) that is causing it.

People are part of the system, of course, but there are other factors too. Let me tell you some stories to illustrate.

Sweet talk

Back in the Jurassic, I worked for an organisation that made children’s sweets. The success of the Manufacturing department was measured in “tons per direct employee”. They hit their production targets by making large numbers of large jars of sweets. Manufacturing didn’t want to make small packets of sweets, which took too much time, and messed up their performance figures.

However, at this same company, the Sales team could only make their sales targets by selling things people wanted to buy. And shops wanted sweets in sealed packets. They did not want large jars from which they would have to pour out 100g at a time into little paper bags!

So of course, Manufacturing and Sales were always fighting. And each blamed the other when they missed their targets. An issue with the people involved? No, a management issue. They should never have had conflicting targets.

Human error? Or faulty plumbing…?

Some time ago I worked with a Housing Association. Both tenants and Housing staff used to complain that the Repair service (a different organisation) did not phone ahead when they turned up to do a repair.

Then I discovered the Repair staff complaining that the Housing staff never advised the tenant’s telephone number when booking a repair! Except they did, always.

Apparently, the computer programme only transmitted the first part of the notes field (details of the problem) from Housing to Repair, and not the second part, which included the phone number and information about when the tenant would be in!  An issue with the people involved? No, an issue with the original design of the computer system, which could only be fixed by IT.

Somebody else’s problem?

More recently I worked with a small family firm which was having frequent unpleasant internal squabbles. It was clear that the way they worked had just “evolved”, so the business was not working effectively. Everyone agreed that getting more organised would be good.

It soon became clear that some tasks had never been allocated to anyone. Everyone thought it was someone else’s job! (And said so. At the top of their lungs.) Once we sorted out what needed doing, by whom, and in what order, the shouting matches went away. An issue with the people involved? No, a process problem (they didn’t have any).

In each case it would have been easy to jump to the conclusion that people were being difficult, or were not really team players. But in each case that would have been wrong – there was another cause, and once that was sorted, the noise went away.

Of course, sometimes it is a problem with the people involved. But if you start by eliminating the plumbing issues, it’s easier to avoid the accusation that you are “picking on” someone.

Struggling to see the plumbing issues? Give me a call 01359 240717 – I’ll be happy to talk it through with you!  Or email

Venues – a recipe for success?

Venues – a recipe for success?

I do a lot of networking, at many different venues– in fact I get all my business by word of mouth. And the key to successful networking, like so many other things, is consistency.  So while I am happy to visit new networks from time to time, my focus is on a few strategic networks that I attend every time they run.

But this post is about venues. Because I visit them all the time. And for venues, as for networking, the key to success lies in consistency.

Why consistency is vital

Every meeting needs a venue – and most of the meetings I attend use the same format, set up in the same way, at the same venue. Every time.

So the requirements for that meeting will also be the same. Every time.

You’d think that any venue lucky enough to have this kind of regular booking would also have processes in place to deal with them. After all, how hard could it be?

Well, for some of them it clearly isn’t hard at all.

Take the White Hart in Godmanchester, where I attend a Women in Business Network lunch once a month. The tables are arranged just as we like them, the napkins and cutlery are properly laid out, there are jugs of water on the table, the teas and coffees are ready on the side… well, you get the picture.

Then there’s the Community Centre in Needham Market, where Stowmarket Chamber run their monthly drop-in coffee and cake networking. The room is ready, the urn is full of hot water, there’s a cloth on the table, the mugs are laid out, and the teaspoons are in place.

Then there are… other places.

The monthly lunch venue where the organiser has to turn up early to re-set the room, and chase up the missing items.  Every time.

And the weekly breakfast venue which never remembers teaspoons. So, yes, the organisers finally bought their own!

Not to mention the fortnightly breakfast venue where the meeting tables randomly cycle between boardroom square, U-shape, and medieval baronial.  Which has now become a standing joke among attendees.

There are many more “war stories”.  You may have some of your own (please share!)

Does it matter?  Yes, for a number of reasons.

Venues need to make a profit…

Now I’m only guessing, of course, but I would have thought most venues were looking for more, and more profitable, business. And there is an oft-quoted saying that to make more profit there are only three things you can increase:

  • orders per customer
  • your customer list
  • or your prices

So – how could those aims be achieved…?

Orders per customer

Rule one to get more orders from your existing customers must, surely, be to get it right. First time. Every time.

In fact every time a venue sets up a room for a business meeting, you could say it’s creating a business opportunity. A chance to demonstrate its professionalism. To show potential clients why they can – and should – book it for their next training course. Their next product launch. Or their next celebration dinner.

It’s a perfect opportunity to win new orders. An opportunity that is all too often missed.

Customer list

Every meeting, by definition, involves more than one person. With a good chance that one or more of them are coming for the first time.

So it wouldn’t hurt to impress them.

And even if it’s the same people every time, every meeting makes an impression. Good – or bad. And each of those visitors will have their own network of business and social contacts. People they talk to about – among other things – the best local venues. More potential customers – who will take the recommendations (or warnings) they receive at face value.

Meaning that every networking session is an advertisement for the venue. Just as much as (if not more than) an ad in the local paper, on local radio, or on social media.

With the added benefit that someone else is paying you for the privilege…

Price – and the buying decision

So – if a venue can’t cope with our requirements, why are we still using it?

Well, at least one of the places I mentioned earlier has lost the business. With the others, it’s a matter of balancing the pros and the cons. This venue is better organised, but parking is tricky. That venue is better organised, but they can’t offer the dates this year. And so on.  It’s a balancing act between costs and benefits.  But price is an item that weighs pretty heavily in that balance.

So if your offer isn’t delivering on the benefits, you’ll need to redress the balance by – yes – reducing your prices.

Every decision is based on a cost-benefit judgement, even if that is done informally.  And if your offering scores weakly on the benefits side, you can – and must – redress the balance by reducing prices.

Some suppliers make the mistake of assuming they must be doing OK. After all the customer is still buying, aren’t they?  And there is a certain amount of buying inertia / better the devil you know etc.

But sometimes while all looks serene on the surface, the customer is actually working quite hard to find an alternative supplier.

It makes far better business sense to offer a decent product and service; and charge a decent price.

So why are venues getting it wrong?

My belief is that the problem is twofold:  firstly, these venues simply have no idea what is important to their customers.

Sounds crazy, maybe, but many of the business lunch venues produce excellent food, and seem to think that that is enough.  And for many of the delegates it may well be.

But the meeting organisers need to know that everything will be well when they turn up.  They need to know that they do not need to turn up early every time to sort out venue problems.  They need to know that if they are held up e.g. by roadworks, the meeting room will be ready on time.

And the choice of venue is down to the organiser.

So even if the niggles seem trivial to the venue, there will come a day when the hassle becomes the last straw. And from there on it is just a matter of time before the meeting moves somewhere else.

But I believe there is a second issue, too, a surprising one.  There is no recipe!

Food (from recipes)…

I am sure that in all these venues, there are clear and documented recipes for food production in the kitchen.  There have to be.

The recipe will set out the list of ingredients required, which will inform the buying side, so they can keep the stock cupboard replenished.

The recipe will set out the actions to be taken by the chef and the kitchen team, and in what order, and when, so that the slow cook items are started in time, and the stir-fry vegetables are prepared and ready for when they are needed.

There will also be recipes for the preparation which detail the equipment to be used – colour-coded preparation-boards, for example, keeping meat and vegetables apart.

In many establishments there are also pictures of the finished serving, to keep the offering consistent . Whoever is on duty.

…and ‘other stuff’ (that needs a recipe)…

There will be “recipes” for the cleaning too!

Lists of items that need cleaning and the frequency required: some every day, some items every week, others every month.  And details of the cleaning processes involved, and the cleaning agents.  And the cleaning equipment to be used – with colour-coded cloths for different areas.

Why do they do this?  To ensure a consistent high-quality result.  And to pass inspection by the Food Standards Agency.

A recipe for successful venues

Just imagine how easy it would be for everyone if the venue had a recipe for setting out the room!

A list of ingredients/equipment, so the person setting the room out has everything they need to do the job. No running backwards and forwards looking for odd items, with the risk they will get distracted and forget something important (like teaspoons…)

The timeline, ensuring that jugs of water and pots of coffee are on the table when delegates start to arrive, but not set out so far ahead that the water is unpleasantly warm, the coffee is unpleasantly tepid, and the milk has curdled (yes, that has happened!)

A picture of the room set out the way the customer wants it, so each individual customer gets the layout they’ve asked for, every time.

Why do might the venue do this?

  • To ensure a consistent high-quality result.  And to pass inspection by the customer.
  • To perform well in the eyes of attendees, ensuring that those attendees will consider the venue for their own requirements. And recommend the venue to their contacts.
  • To provide a decent service – ensuring they can charge a decent price, and make a decent profit.

Help is available

Success – for your venue – will have many ingredients. So if you need help in finding them (and then creating the perfect recipe) the Business Plumber will be delighted to help. For an initial one-hour consultation just call 01359 240717. And the price? Just one cup of (good) coffee…