This is an article about change management and business needs vs business wants.
I have found that most successful regional businesses are progressive, proactive and agile in their approach to business. They have to be to survive and prosper.
Early in my post transition career a local company opened an opportunity for me in change management in their business. The company is a successful express courier business based in my home town and it has taken me some years to truly appreciate the value of the opportunity I was given. I still recommend this company where appropriate for their gold standard customer service culture.
At the time the company was at the beginning of their technical maturity journey. Without going into detail they were operating a custom designed billing database developed and managed by a locally based software developer. I liked the system. Although the user interface was pre-windows, the data handling and processing capability of the software was everything the business needed at the time. If you knew how to search you could find all the information you needed from a logistics management and financial point of view.
Management had a clear commitment to business process improvement and an excellent level of employee “buy in” on business operating systems. They had put the effort into finding and retaining good people and it showed.
Parcel billing was configured on various sets of rates to individual customers pricing deliveries from location to location. Fairly standard for any general freight courier. Some customers had anything up to a couple of hundred lines of custom quoted rates – in line with the customer culture of the business.
The golden change management lesson learned here appeared at the time of the annual price rise process.
Express courier small parcel tracking and billing is a data heavy environment. The company at the time was operating mostly on paper consignment notes which were entered by hand into the system for billing – entirely appropriate for the available technology at the time and the maturity level of the business.
The database had grown with the business and still had plenty of potential for further scaling. Each individually quoted set of rates was entered by hand at the time of acceptance of the quote. In keeping with the fast paced nature of the business administrative data entry load was constant and deadline driven.
These highly dedicated data entry operators also entered the annual price rise by hand – for an uncounted number of lines of entry. The business had grown to the point where the annual price rise data entry process consumed the time of the entire data entry staff (around 7-10 FTE I think) for about two working weeks as I recall. Everything had to be done in addition to the daily load and the backlog could not be allowed to build up. Everyone in the business dreaded price rise time.
In true military fashion I looked at this process and thought “there just has to be a better way to do this”.
One of the business owners and I went to speak to the software developer. The two stakeholders (Owner and Developer) knew each other reasonably well and had been working together for a few years. Each knew what the other did, and why they were connected.
I had actually not had a lot of exposure to databases at the time but I had put “hands on” time in data entry and had gained a rough idea of the operating principles. I asked a few questions and then asked the one that really mattered:
“Is it possible to run a percentage increase algorithm over the rates to enact the annual price rise?”
“No problem” said the developer.
“How long would it take you to do that?”
“I can have it to you tomorrow.”
“How long would it take to run?”
Out of sight of the business owner more than one of the data entry operators actually hugged me for that question.
The developer had given the business exactly the capability the business had asked for. He did not extend as far as asking himself what the business as a whole needed. The business knew enough to know that they needed the person who knew which questions to ask.
The time normally spent keying the annual price rise that year was actually spent on assessing quoted rates for profitability. The price rise went from a fourteen day horror story to an overnight invisible process.
In change management it is unwise to dictate to business what they want – but you can definitely get them to question what they need.
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