In small companies, resources are limited and people must wear many hats. With too few resources at hand, uniquely talented individuals are sometimes assigned mundane tasks because they can do “anything and everything.” It may seem advantageous to save time and money by using good people for everything; however, you also run the risk of burning that person out and losing them. If you can’t take on more employees, how can you work as efficiently as possible, while keeping talented individuals happy and productive? In this, I am reminded of the Theory of Constraints, a management paradigm often simplified to the expression that “a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.”
The Theory of Constraints was introduced in 1984 by Eliyahu Goldratt in his book entitled The Goal. It is based on the premise that improvement for goal-oriented companies is often limited by one or more constraints and, by focusing on these constraints, a company can improve its operations and its success. Basically, the constraint becomes a focusing mechanism to improve the company.
Years ago, I worked for a company and one of our constraints was the way we were using our leading researcher. The fellow was an amazing talent and we had serious R&D tasks at hand. But we also used him for another very important task---training new customers. This was a new and innovative cardiology technology that was being marketed to leading researchers at leading medical schools. It was critical that after purchasing the system, a customer learn how to use our product effectively. Often, these early customers would want to confirm the product utility on their clinical patients---and we wanted this data as well as it often resulted in peer-reviewed publications in prestigious medical journals touting our system. This was a good thing as it resulted in more sales.
In the early phase of product introduction, sales were one or two units per month. And we’d send our researcher out for two days of training at each center. Over time, sales increased to five to six systems per month; then, we’d have to have him out 10 to 12 days per month. He did not particularly like that level of travel and it prevented his doing what he viewed as the high-value research that he was passionate about.
One day, after listening to this dedicated employee again express his frustrations with not having the time to do his research, somebody came up with the idea of scheduling one or two training sessions per month at our Oklahoma City offices and flying the customers, at our expense (air, hotel, parking, meals and incidentals), to our location. I do not really remember exactly who had the idea, but it was a stroke of brilliance. We did, by the way, nearly go into shock as we toted up the travel costs. It took several discussions before we believed the costs were the same. We had training in Oklahoma City for two to four days per month. Our star trainer did not leave home. The customers, MD and PhD researchers from leading US medical schools, got away from their offices and away from their beepers, and focused solely on our product. The hard out-of-pocket costs were equivalent. But the value of the training, the customer retention and the long-term satisfaction of users all improved dramatically. Importantly, the research relationships that we were keen to establish and were the foundation for future sales were also dramatically improved. If we hadn’t made this change, we probably would have lost the employee, and for our small company at the time, this would have been truly devastating.
Small companies would do well to make time to focus on the “weakest link in the chain” and take steps to improve the structural operation of their companies. Sometimes the fix isn’t in our hardware or software, it’s in the way we are using our people.