We're always looking to fix problems. Most of the time, problems are addressed by making our systems more complex.

We add new rules. We create new process steps. We insert new reviews and checkpoints.

This happens in government, of course, but also in each of our companies. It's the way we think about addressing issues.

The net result is that overhead continues to increase, things slow down, and you lose innovation. This is one of the most powerful reasons why upstart companies can succeed at the expense of the larger incumbents.

Your challenge is to constantly look for opportunities to achieve improvement through subtraction, removal and optimization. You want to improve speed, reduce cost and eliminate unnecessary overhead whenever possible.

It's not easy, of course. But here are some areas to look for.

A great place to start is to look at processes which were put in place long ago and might have become obsolete. There may be reports that no one is paying attention to anymore, or data being gathered which is no longer relevant.

Look to reduce chains of overhead. Multiple approval steps should be reserved for high-risk situations, not where you can trust your folks to do the right thing.

Help people to have jobs where they can make their own decisions, rather than seeking group consensus. This is tricky because you'll balance this against the need for alignment and visibility. But employees are generally more productive when they're not waiting for others.

Align your people around the measures which matter the most to your success. Keeping customers satisfied? That's a top priority. Filling out internal paperwork? Perhaps not so much. Your ideal is to measurably improve the time employees are spending on the things which matter most.

Look for task duplication. As a company grows, it's common that the same work may be done in multiple places. Investigate whether it would be more efficient overall to centralize some of that. Just watch out for creating bottlenecks or adding extra layers of communication.

Tap the intelligence of your workforce. Many people will spot inefficiencies in the workplace, but don't believe their ideas will be appreciated or acted upon. But because they're closest to the work, often closest to your customers, they can highlight huge opportunities for improvement.

Of course you want to examine technology trends. Are there new tools which are common elsewhere which might be valuable to adopt? Often you can reap huge benefits in speed of communication and distributed decision making.

You may even find certain tools you adopted 10 years ago which can be done by something much, much cheaper. Costs have dropped dramatically with certain technologies such as smartphones and tablets.

I sometimes find that long-term partnerships and supplier relationships provide opportunities to improve processes. Here's the question to ask: If we were going to design the relationship today, what would we change? There might be a shift of responsibilities, new tools and different communications. When you rely on these relationships so much for your success, it may be worth an investment with your partner to reduce inefficiencies.

Look at companies that have some similar characteristics to yours but are in different industries. I constantly see examples where a common practice can be entirely unknown someplace else, simply because it hasn't been accepted as the standard yet.

Finally, look for upstarts that will be taking your customers away. They might not even be in the same industry, but they'll be scrappy and creative, unconstrained by all the processes you've put in place. You may not want to adopt everything they do, but there's probably some great ideas that could help you to become more nimble as well.

When you're trying to fix problems and address issues, you'll often end up adding overhead and slowing things down. That's the path to obsolescence.

Take time to seek out opportunities to streamline, to eliminate, to innovate.


Carl Dierschow is a Small Fish Business Coach based in Fort Collins. His website is smallfish.us.