Roadblocks to Growth: A framework for identifying team inefficiencies

This is a first article in a new series called “Roadblocks to Growth,” where we tackle some of the common financial, management, and operational issues keeping companies from unlocking their full growth potential. 

Many successful startups that we work with often face growing pains when expanding the business and hiring new people. Suddenly, a small close-knit team of a handful of people is now a team of 25… or 50… or 100. And with that growth comes one of the biggest roadblocks facing growing companies: a growing payroll accompanied by diminished team productivity.

When businesses grow quickly, a complaint we often hear from managers is that either A) employees are not competent for the job, or that B) everyone is worked to capacity and that there aren’t enough resources to handle the workload.

But before business owners get into firing or hiring mode, it’s important to make an objective and honest evaluation of your staff as a whole. Is the management effective? How well do teams communicate as a whole? Are employees performing poorly because of bad skills or bad management? Answering these questions can help you to identify the breakdowns and gaps that may be preventing your team from working efficiently. 

Identifying the gaps and roadblocks

Here’s an exercise that we have led for several clients who were experiencing similar growth pains with managing their employees. We gathered management together from the various teams, asking each team leader to outline:

  • The key objectives and goals of the team, both short-term and long-term
  • What the ideal workflow and workload was for their team and staff 
  • The ideal responsibilities of the team leader and each member
  • What the current working situation was like, both workflow and responsibilities

In the second step, you work with each team leader to map goals and ideal work processes with the current reality. This allows you to identify gaps and problems that need to be addressed.

For example, say your customer service lead for your e-retail business is experiencing trouble with customers complaining about poor service. She would like for her team to address all customer complaints within a 24-hour time period, but the team has been unable to meet that goal, averaging a 48-hour time period instead. 

Asking why, then why again… and again

The next step would be to ask why. But one "why" is not enough. Like a precocious toddler, address problems by asking why and why again until finally you reach the root causes for the problem at hand. Management experts call this process the 5 Whys, and it is an important part of a Root Cause Analysis

Here’s one simplified example of a 5 Whys taken to its natural conclusion:

Source: MindTools

Source: MindTools

However, business is not always so simple, and whys can often have more than one answer. Each of those why answers also require a why follow-up. Using the 5 Whys framework, we might find our chart looking more like this: 

Source: Creative Business Inc.

Source: Creative Business Inc.

Without going through such rigamarole, the easy answer to the problem may have been to simply hire more customer reps. But by attacking the problem from multiple angles, you may find these smaller roadblocks, all of which can be solved more cost-effectively than hiring new people. 

Find solutions by questioning your assumptions

It’s easy to lay blame on others when we discover problems in our own businesses. But to find effective, long-term solutions requires asking tough questions and perhaps dismantling long-held assumptions about your management processes. Here are some of the most common questions that we bring up when we talk to clients: 

  • Is it a process issue? Do team members know what they have to do and when they have to do it?
  • Is it a communications issue? Do employees know the chain of command and who to ask for help? 
  • Is a resource issue? Do you provide employees with the tools needed to do their jobs effectively?
  • Is it an automation issue? Are employees doing menial work that could be better served by technology?
  • Is it a skill deficiency? Do employees know how to use the programs they’re being asked to use? 
  • Is a learning and development problem? Do you provide enough training so the team can operate knowledgeably?
  • Is it a work ethic issue? Have you communicated your expectations clearly and defined rules? 

In our example above, it could be easy to finger-point blame at one team or another for not properly performing their jobs. But by asking the right questions, we can deliver multiple solutions for the initial problem: perhaps management may decide to institute better training procedures for their customer service reps, or even create a searchable database for common complaints. They may also decide to implement a platform or app that helps to streamline manager approval requests, and talk to the inventory manager to plan for pre-emptive customer issues when they know problems may arise from defective merchandise.

By getting to the source of your company's inefficiencies, then questioning our assumptions about your current processes, you can arrive at far more efficient and cost-effective solutions for your business—and get the most out of your team along the way.