SME improvement tip: Get your staff to improve themselves.

SME improvement tip: Get your staff to improve  themselves.

Many  small business owners who are not confident of their finance knowledge  will be afraid to tackle the finance  area  for process improvements  as they feel they do not fully understand what is required.

Your resource base is probably one of the biggest costs in your business and any area that operates as a support to the core business such as Finance, Marketing, Sales, Quality etc., should be operating at a highly efficient rate. This is necessary in order to not over burden the business with their costs and also to ensure they are serving your business with core value adding information which will push your business forward. Therefore it is imperative that you ensure that you get the most efficient ways of working and more importantly a culture within your staff that they are continuously looking for improvements in their own areas of work.

The 3 Whys tool is a skill which can be used by you or your own staff which encourages challenge and the finding of the root cause to an issue or a problem. It does not require you to be the expert in that field as the idea is to get the person who carries out the work you are looking at, to find the improvements for themselves. This is best explained through a real life simple example of a conversation I recently had with the Office Manager of a Contract Services SME in Bristol. Let’s refer to her as Joan. (I have summarised some of the ‘chat’ but kept the main threads of the Why questions.)

Joan: I am so overloaded with work Hayley, I haven’t got time to look at the Cash flow, on top of that, I have to review the Payroll, review the Supplier payments and ensure we are doing all the invoicing on time.

Hayley: yes it sounds like you have too much pull on your time, would it help if we looked at some of the areas which are draining your time?

Joan: Yes, well I am just updating one of the huge spreadsheets I have to keep updated as soon as I get any information. It helps me to know exactly what is going on, what contracts we are doing, who sold them, and loads of other useful information. Do you want to look at this one?

Hayley: Ok.  Why(1) do you have to update this spreadsheet so frequently and with so many different sources of information?

Joan: get the information in there of course. If the information isn’t in there I won’t be able to answer all the questions I get asked from various people within the business.

Hayley: Oh right, so why(2) are you getting asked all these questions around what sales levels the sales guys are making,  what invoicing has been carried out on any particular project, etc. etc.

Joan: Well it’s not so much that I do get asked these questions. I keep this spreadsheet just  in case  I get asked these  questions, otherwise they will think I’m not doing my job properly and they don’t realise how much work I have to do. I used to get asked a lot of these types of questions and in fact I used to also print out the graphs I still keep updated for the General Manager, but he left last year and was never replaced.

Hayley: Oh right, so given you don’t seem to get asked these questions any more why(3) do you keep the information updated now then.

Joan: Well just in case I suppose. But actually, I hadn’t really thought about it. Maybe I don’t need to do a lot of this anymore.


When I spoke to Joan a week later, she had rationalised and removed many of the tabs of information in the spreadsheet so that only the key areas that were being used were now being updated. She has thought through the problem herself because I had questioned her in a way that challenged the rationale for her work.

Hence the 3 Whys technique allow you to have the conversation with your staff, in such a way that it will help them to see where they can improve their work, rather than you telling them. These sorts of improvements as we all know, are the best way to improve, as they come from the person who needs to do the improvement. By the idea  being their own they are more likely to make this happen and most importantly, by using this style of questioning , or  coaching,  it will make them feel really good about the change rather than feel that they are being criticised for poor work.

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