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Somewhere on this site or maybe on a personal blog somewhere, I have stories about taking nearly my entire corporate job back in the early 1990s and secretly reducing it down to a single macro. Efficiency has always been a particular fascination of mine and, no matter how many new clients I get, I've never encountered a client that couldn't benefit from efficiency improvements. As a field of specialty, this type of thing was a pretty big deal in the 1990s, with entire management companies springing up to address this issue. It's seemed to have waned a bit, since then, for various reasons. But, I think, in general, efficiency is probably worth revisiting now for many of the same reasons it was back then.

My rationale for this is that, day to day, I'm out there in the trenches at various companies, and I observe more problematic processes than ever. It's as if the lessons learned in the late 1990s have not been passed onto the newer generation of managers and owners. What I see routinely are various long-running, legacy business practices and processes that could be improved or streamlined, if only the client knew in the first place that a better way existed. Usually, this involves leveraging technology in some way.

Granted, a few of these ways are obvious. For example, I once worked at a company in which (100% true story!), whenever HR wanted to send a memo, they would do the following:

  • HR would type up the memo using MS Word and print it in their office in color. Note that we're talking about a routine, internal memo, likely stating something on the order of "Please note that the office will close at 3:00 p.m. on Friday in observance of the holiday weekend."
  • They'd then then take the color printout across the office to the leased Xerox machine where they could then copy it to a high-res color PDF file and have it emailed back to them.
  • Next, they'd create an email and attach the PDF. Often, the email would contain its own introductory text, some repetitive info about what's in the attached PDF, and quite often a few additional details not in the PDF. In this case, imagine an accompanying email something like: "See attached announcement about our early closing on Friday. If you're the last person out of the office, please remember to lock the door!"
  • They'd finally send this email out to the entire company, requiring each employee to then have to download, open, and read the (in this case) one-sentence document -- the net effect of which could have been realized in under 1 minute had they simply opened an email and typed the message as plain text.

Hopefully, all of the above (aside from the solution) sounds ridiculous to you. But, in addition, consider the following points that show not only one instance of wasted time, but also how this snowballs into further problems down the line:

  • Upon receiving such a memo, most employees would first download the PDF file onto their local hard drives and then view it on their screens. They would also likely retain the original email instead of deleting it. So, this results in one copy stored in the email cache (e.g., the Outlook file that most corporate users have), and one on the local hard drive of the employee computer and/or within that employee's space on a shared office server. Keep in mind that we're talking about a color scan, which could be at least a meg or two in size.
  • Ergo, for each one- or two-sentence memo HR churned out, you now have *two* 2-meg PDF files multiplied by the total number of employees it was sent to, plus a few additional copies here and there, such as within the Xerox machine's server folder and various HR folders (as well as who knows how many paper copies that various parties may have printed out for whatever reason). All of this amounts, in the case of just ONE such memo, to considerable redundant bloat on the server, not to mention the copies sitting in individual email boxes in perpetuity, most of which would then get backed up by the company's file backup system, a process that (not surprisingly to the IT staff) seems to take increasingly longer to complete each time.

While this particular story should seem quite obviously wrong to most people, what isn't obvious to most people would be the subtler types of efficiency opportunities lingering out there. I honestly wish somehow I could just magically go into all companies one at a time to do these improvements as a career, bypassing all of the convincing and selling that is required to ever get me there. If so, I could be a millionaire many times over and all of the companies could stop wasting time and money on an ongoing basis. That would be a win-win, in my book -- especially the part about my becoming wealthy.

Anyway, that delusional fantasy aside, one may wonder why a web development company might make the best type of efficiency consultant. The answer is simple: Many of the ways in which companies can leverage technology for efficiency involve various readily accessible web-based technologies such as database apps that run off of a server and email tools that servers have built-in. Web servers can intake data from customers via a web site, or from employees via an intranet, massage and store that data, and then spit it back out to screens or customers or employees anytime. It's tough to encapsulate everything possible in every situation, but that's a broad summation. Most manual processes can be made simpler, faster, and more efficient in this way.

So many things that you do everyday in your office could benefit greatly by porting them from their rote, mechanical, and/or desktop computer settings over to a web server. I had a client recently that received email submissions by the thousands from users via web forms. Yes, that part is well automated. But, these submissions had to be further scrubbed, reformatted, and manually changed into other types of information for various purposes. True, each time someone did this, it was only a 15 or 20-minute task, which isn't the end of the world cost-wise. But, what if that task could be eliminated or, at worst, transformed into a 1-minute task?

""If it's so great, then why aren't more companies doing it?"

Two reasons.

First, myopia. Management tends not to look at larger pictures in making such considerations. If something takes 10 minutes that could take 1 minute, that's often a below-the-radar type enhancement. If everyone's job is getting done at the moment, and the company is essentially profitable, then there often isn't a driver for pursuing efficiencies, even if the extra time gained could be used in some other way.

Also myopic is a tendency to focus on a balance sheet at a given time versus long-term bottom-line profitability. If a $100k repair can save a company $1 million in the long run, there are companies who still would not make the repair, as they view it as a hefty, up-front, $100k expense rather than $900k in ongoing new revenue. (And, mind you, that such things generally *do* require a bit of front-loaded expense to get going.) If such an opportunity is intentionally not pursued, then it could be indicative of another type of problem (e.g., extenuating circumstances, perceived risk, owner preference for the status quo, fear of upsetting or displacing people, or possibly even simple "bad management").

This brings me to the second reason: Poor advisors. Hopefully, the previous point about viewing that repair as a $100k expense struck many people as wrong at a gut level. While that certainly does happen, though, another common reason companies do not pursue such things comes down to their partnerships with various advisors. A good IT partner, for example, should identify thing like this, as should a good web company. But, even if they do, they don't always do a good job of convincing companies to do them.

So, in the end, there's a magic, two-fold relationship -- one in which the management or owner actively welcomes such efficiency suggestions and the various partners and vendors are the kind to bring them to light. This alone cannot gaurantee profitability, of course. But, assuming all else is good, such efforts can and do usually raise the bottom line.

Are There Efficiencies At My Company?

If your company would like to explore whether any business processes could benefit from technology, give us a call to arrange a consultation. (Contact us today via this form.) Please note that, while we're a small company, we're well aware of both the advantages and noted criticisms of similar types of fields, most notably the "Business Process Reengineering" prevalent in the 1990s. We wouldn't categorize the point of this article as advocating a simple automation of manual tasks or processes, as we are just as interested in real all-around improvement (on all levels) for all players in a given scenario.

"Time Spiral" photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz (Flickr, creative commons).

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