Hero image: how to improve business efficiency

As the COO of the company, one of my main jobs is to make sure that our operations are running as efficiently and effectively as possible. It’s a big, ongoing, likely never-ending task that needs regular review. Having taken on this role around this time last year, one of my biggest priorities was to review where we were at that point in time and figure out how to move forward. It was a mammoth task, and one that I’m not ashamed to admit felt quite overwhelming as someone starting out in a new level of responsibility.

We thought it would be interesting for all you small business owners out there to see more about our process, and get some inspiration for ways to improve efficiency with a small team.

These few easy-to-follow steps should get you well on your way to knowing how to make your business more efficient:

Step 1: Identify what you want to get out of the exercise

Think about what prompted you to work on efficiency in the first place. Where do you want to be when the report is done? Identifying a key aim for the report will make it easier for you to come up with focused actions and help you prioritise them appropriately once the report is finished.

Step 2: Identify the key areas of operation within your business.

Make sure you cover all areas, as efficiencies that you identify could have co-dependencies in other areas. Each business will have different operational set-ups, and your areas of focus will evolve over time, but here are some of the things that we worked on this time around to get you started:

  • Meetings
  • Client work
  • Workload management
  • Communication
  • Documentation
  • Marketing

Step 3: Assess what is currently happening in each of those areas of operation.

You are not going to be able to move forward successfully unless you understand what is currently happening. Be honest about the function of each area, and assess it in as much detail as you can to give yourself the fullest picture to work from. Don’t be afraid if the picture you paint isn’t the one you want - fixing that is the whole point of the report in the first place.

TOP TIP: Keep the emotion out of it. Be factual and truthful, but keep it objective for optimum success. E.g. it can be frustrating if meetings feel unnecessary and pointless, but saying that won’t help anyone - identify them as overused and ineffective instead; language makes all the difference.

Step 4: Figure out what is working for you / your team in each area.

Hopefully this will be the easiest part of the report for you to write. You should be able to determine the things that are working in your favour relatively quickly. Strip it right back to basics if you get a bit stuck (e.g. for workload management, look at whether or not tasks are getting completed by their expected deadlines, or if the system you use for tracking your work is meeting expectations and requirements).

Step 5: Figure out what could do with improvement in each area.

This step can be a bit trickier than the previous one, as there is an element of “you don’t know what you don’t know”. I found it useful to think about what the ideal for each area would be and figure out what was missing from that in the current situation.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have all the answers in this area up-front. Come up with a “starter-for-ten list” to get the ball rolling; more actions will naturally evolve as things start to change.

Step 6: Come up with a list of suggested actions that can be taken in each area.

The all-important step of taking your vision and your ideas for what could be better, and turning them into something you can actually do something with. Make sure you keep the actions as small as possible to make them manageable. It’s ok if your list is long, the next step will help keep you on track. As with the step above, you don’t need to have all the possible actions listed out here, come up with some to get you started (a mix of quick-wins and bigger tasks is a good place to be) and let others come to you as progress is made. This exercise is not a one-and-done solution, the report is just the starting point for an ongoing process that your business will be following around constantly evolving your effectiveness and efficiencies.

Step 7: Prioritise all actions and map into a project timeframe.

This bit is the most vital one of all. Without this, the report is null and void, and will end up being put down as a fruitless exercise and a waste of time. Once you have your list of actions, you need to make sure you have prioritised them in an order that makes sense for your business. I would recommend tackling a couple of quick-wins to help give you a sense of momentum and some positive feedback from the process (will help with motivation across the board) and then move fairly quickly into some of the meatier tasks that you’ve identified, as these can take time and so the earlier you start, the sooner you’ll see the benefits.

TOP TIP: Map your actions in a colour-coded Gantt chart (you can use Google Sheets to make something basic and effective) so that everyone has a visual for what is being achieved and how much progress has been made. Everyone loves a visual.

Step 8: Document and communicate your plan clearly so everyone involved can help keep it on track.

Much like the project timeframe for the actions you’re going to take, it’s important to be realistic with yourself - pick one central location for tracking all of this work (outside of your project map) and agree on a business-wide method of communication. This could be regular updates in meetings that are already happening, such as a sprint-planning meeting or a project update meeting, or you could decide to have a monthly meeting dedicated to reporting on efficiencies. If you have a work-tracking system, it might work well for you and your team-mates if the work for this project is tracked alongside the work for all other active projects so that anyone can go in and help themselves to the information when it suits them. There is no right or wrong answer for how this work should be documented, but it has to be clearly communicated and readily available for the project to be successful. Accountability is key.

And there you have it, our process for reporting on your business’s current efficiencies / inefficiencies and planning how to tackle the findings of said report. We are in the depths of actioning our first report and are seeing multiple benefits to the process, we hope you do too and we’d love to hear from you on how you find it.

- Alanna