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6 Steps to Better Business Solutions

March 26, 2009
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/200928

Physician, heal thyself is good advice if you run a small business. You already know how to fix the problems in your business, and you know how to grow from those problems.

Last month, I gave a talk on "Surviving and Thriving in Real Estate" to about 200 people. I went around the room and met about 50 people before I spoke. I asked, "If you were giving today's talk, what would you say?" I got eight great ideas and shared them with the audience. I showed them: If you're working, you already know what works.

Your experience is more valuable than the expertise of a dozen MBAs and Ph.Ds. Your experience becomes expertise when you look squarely at your problems and create solutions. You just need to know how to think like your own consultant.

Fix Your Business
Follow six steps to think like a consultant, and fix your business.

1. List your problems.
Here's a technique called The Power of Negative Thinking, from Barbara Sher's Wishcraft. Get a friend and give him a pad and pen. Launch into a standup comedy routine. That's right. Stand up. Talk loudly. Complain. Bitch and moan. The theme is: Here's what's wrong with my business. Have your friend write down every complaint.

Once you've bemoaned your business's biggest issues, you have a list of the problems in your business, and you'll feel better, too.

2. Pick one.
So now you have a list of problems. But you can only fix one at a time. So pick one.
How? Well, try this. Which problem:

Answer any of those questions. Pick one; then get moving.

3. Fix the right problem.
If a doctor gave you heart medicine for a stomach problem, you'd be mad. But in business, people fix the wrong problem all the time.

Shortness of breath--a lung problem--can be caused by heart trouble. Skin rashes can be caused by allergies. The key to fixing the right problem is to realize that the symptom is in one place, and the cause is in another. This is true in our bodies and our businesses.

If sales are bad, don't push your sales people harder. Fix the mistake in marketing. The key to being your own consultant is to think like a physician, an engineer and a troubleshooter: If this is the symptom, then where's the problem? A business works like a set of gears, and all businesses operate more or less the same way. In every business, you'll have to address these issues:

  1. Know your target market: Who would benefit from your product or service?
  2. Reach your customers: Use advertising, promotion or networking to meet your customers where they already are. Show them their pain. Show them your product or service is the solution.
  3. Bring your customer to your store or website.
  4. Persuade your customers to buy your product.
  5. Deliver the goods.
  6. Collect testimonials and referrals. That brings you back to step 3.

Follow that cycle over and over.

4. Diagnose before solving.
So you're ready to fix the right problem. But are you sure you know the solution?

There's a great way to get to the bottom of a problem. It's called the "Five Whys?" Take a problem. Ask "Why is this happening?" five times.

For example, projects often run late:

Why did the project run late?
We didn't know all that we would need to do. We ended up having to do a lot more work at the last minute, and we missed the deadline.

Why didn't you know what you needed to do?
We didn't sit down and write up a plan. We just got to work.

Why didn't you write up a plan?
We didn't think it was worth the time.

Why didn't you think it was worth the time?
We were running late after delays on other projects, we got started late and just thought we had to get to work.

Why were you running late on other projects?
Because we didn't sit down and write up a plan, and missed our deadline.

Now we have the answer. Project after project, each one with no plan, each one ran late. The solution: Take time to plan each project, and write down the plan. For a small project, that may take an hour. But that one hour of planning will save 10 hours of work..

Here's an example. One of my clients owns a café on the Carolina shore. Each year, the owner closes down to clean and repair all the equipment and redecorate. Before he looked at The Ultimate Guide to Project Management, he had to shut down for three weeks each year. He took just one idea from the book: Create a quick to-do list. He made a plan. He assigned every job. He got what he needed before shutting the store down.

He got it all done in a week. Between paying people less for repair time and having the store open two more weeks a year, he saved $8,000 annually.

A few hours of planning equals $8,000 per year of increased profit, forever. Is this beginning to sink in?

The rule behind this is called the 1:10:100 rule. Every hour of good planning saves 10 hours of work, or 100 hours of mess that you have to clean up afterward.

So name the problem and put it in front of you. Ask "Why?" five times. Come up with a solution that will permanently prevent the problem. You're ready to go--almost.

5. Get the expertise you need.
Before we commit to a solution, we need an expert to check our work.

You can find a cheap expert to cut down on costs, but who wants to go to the lowest bidder for heart surgery? If this is your business, be willing to pay for the expertise that will solve the problem correctly, and solve it forever. Pay once for the best, instead of paying for a fix that breaks again and again.

So how do you hire an expensive expert cheaply?

It's simple. Do most of the work yourself. Most of us experts spend most of our time asking you what your problem is until you give us a clear answer. Then we waste more time persuading you to do what will work.

Skip that part. Do the work of defining the problem and understanding possible solutions yourself. Then hire the expert for a second opinion. That takes very little time and costs very little money. But it ensures you're on the right track.

6. Make the solution stick.
I just got back from a meeting with a client who has a beautiful website. She looked at Madonna's site and thought "Wow, look at all this cool Flash." So she made a site like that. Her husband dove in, learned Flash and made a beautiful site. Then he went back to his day job.

She never asked how much it costs to maintain a Flash website, which can be expensive.

The lesson: Make your solution stick. If you set up something, plan how to maintain it, and be ready to pay what it costs.

For example, if you see training as the solution, don't just train your current team. What if someone leaves? Write instructions, and build training into your process of hiring new people. Whatever your solution, make sure it will last a lifetime.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat
You solved the right problem the right way, permanently. Now you're making more money, and life is easier.

What's next?

Another problem. And another. And another. And every time you solve a problem, you put more money in your pocket each month--forever.

Yes, times are hard. It's easy to blame the economy, your employees or anyone else within reach of your pointing finger. So let's go back to the real estate agents I spoke to a few weeks ago. As I went around the room, I also got an answer that doesn't work. And I got it from about 20 people. It was, "Things are hard now, but if we just wait it out, they will get better." Now I'm not saying that isn't true. There are cycles in any industry. If things are bad, they will get better.

But will your business live to see the day? Let's face it, as hard times continue, some businesses will fail before things get better. Which ones will survive? I'm betting on business owners--like you--who get out there, stop waiting, stop blaming, and fix our businesses now.

Sid Kemp is the only globally acclaimed project management professional focusing on small business. He is the author of nine business success books, including the Amazon.com bestseller Entrepreneur Magazine's Ultimate Guide to Project Management for Small Business, and Project Management Made Easy. Kemp helps entrepreneurs thrive through coaching, consulting, motivational speaking and training. Learn more at SidKemp.com.