9 Ways to Use Your Business Plan

The spread of the open-book management theory means a lot more employees are seeing their companies' business plans than ever before. When employees get the key information managers are using to make decisions, they understand management better and make better decisions themselves, and efficiency and profitability often increase as a result.

Many companies hold annual meetings at which they present and discuss an edited version of their business plan to all employees. Others provide new hires with their business plan-type information as part of their indoctrination in company culture. Both are effective approaches. You can also use bulletin boards or company newsletters to publish smaller sections of your plan, such as your mission statement or some details of financial objectives and how you're progressing.

One drawback to using a plan to help inform and manage your employees is that many won't understand it. Some firms provide employees with rudimentary training in matters like how to read a financial report before they hand out the company's plans. Often this training is done by the CEO and can take considerable time. But don't be afraid to share details of your business plan with employees. They may turn out to understand it better than you.

Monitoring Your Business's Performance
Using a business plan to monitor your performance has many benefits. If your cash flow is running much shorter than projected at the moment, even though you're not currently in trouble, that information may help you to spot disaster before it occurs. By comparing plan projections with actual results, you gain a deeper understanding of your business's pressure points or the components of your operation that have the most effect on results.

  • Spotting trouble early. A teenager taking driver's education is told to look through the rear window of the car in front to try to see the brake lights on the vehicle ahead of that one. The idea is that if the novice driver waits until the car immediately ahead slams on the brakes, it may be too late to stop. Looking forward, past the immediate future, helps traffic move more smoothly and averts countless accidents.

The same principle applies in business planning. You don't have to be a wizard to get some solid hints about the future beyond tomorrow, especially when it comes to the operations of your own business. You can look at virtually any page of your business plan and find an important concept or number describing some expected future event that, if it turns out to be diverging from reality, may hint at future trouble.

Say your profit margins are shrinking slowly but steadily and seemingly irreversibly. If you can see that within a few months your declining margins will push your break-even point too high to live with, you can take action now to fix the problem. You may need to add a new, higher-margin product; get rid of an old one; or begin marketing to a more profitable clientele. All these moves, and many more you could take, have a good chance of working if your careful comparison of plan projections with actual results warns you of impending danger. Wait until the last minute, and you could be peeling yourself off the windshield.

  • Understanding pressure points. Not all tips that come from comparing plans with results have to do with avoiding danger. Some help you identify profit opportunities. Others may show how seemingly minor tweaks can produce outsized improvements in sales or profitability. For example, the plan for a one-person professional service business indicated that rising sales were not, in general, accompanied by rising costs. Fixed items such as office rent and insurance stayed the same, and even semivariable costs such as phone bills went up only slightly. The bulk of any extra business went straight to the bottom line, showing up as profit improvement. But one cost that didn't seem especially variable went up sharply as business volume climbed. That was the number of transactions.

Ordinarily this would be a given and not necessarily a matter of grave concern. A large enterprise could absorb these costs, but for this single professional, however, added paperwork came at a very high cost--her own time. As a part of checking her plan against results, she noticed this unexpected increase in transactions and calculated that she spent around an hour on paperwork for each transaction no matter how large or small. She realized that one of the most important pressure points in her business was related to the size of a transaction. By refusing small engagements and seeking clients who could offer big jobs, she would reduce the amount of time spent on otherwise unproductive paperwork and increase the time she could spend completing client requirements.

Ultimately, she was able to trim what had been 100 annual transactions down to 75, while increasing the amount of her dollar revenue. The result was a free 25 hours to spend working on more business or just vacationing. If you can see and relieve a pressure point like that, you can really keep your business from boiling over.

There are few things to equal the sensation of filling in all the numbers on a cash flow projection, hitting the recalculate button, and scrolling to the bottom of your spreadsheet to see what the future holds. If the news is good and you see a steady string of positive cash balances across the bottom row, you know that, assuming your data is good and your assumptions reasonable, your business has a good chance of making it.

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