This just in from the Ask IttyBiz mailbag –
“What happens when I am so freaking busy we can’t ship orders on time? We have grown by over 35% year to date. We’ve added new equipment, a ton of employees (seriously I think over half of my employees are new) and we are still shipping 2 weeks late. I’m turning away new customers – store chains that I have to tell ‘let’s revisit this in a few months because we can’t handle the business we have’.
Is there more I can do? How can I handle this better? AAAAGGGH!*
[* Editor’s note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I added the “AAAAGGGH”.]
Great question, Stephanie.
On one hand, this is a good problem to have because – Yay! – you’re growing. On the other hand it’s brutal, because you’re watching opportunities slip away and you’re having difficulty keeping up with current customers.
So, here are a few ideas.
1. Start with getting specific on all your bottlenecks.
If you can’t keep up with the pace of incoming orders, you’re probably having difficulty keeping up with exactly what’s causing problems and bottlenecks for you. Depending on your personality / level of ADHD, if any, the number of things you’re unaware of range from “a few things” to “almost everything”.
Beg, borrow or steal one hour as son as you can and find some place where you can run away and hide. Then play the last few weeks over in your head and write down every issue and bottleneck you can, and address each problem in specific words.
By specific, I mean “Incoming orders aren’t getting processed within 24 hours”, not “Our invoicing system is screwed up”.
Once you have a full list of issues, you then have the power to start figuring out what to address in which order – and you also know how to tell what it will take to fix them.
This will probably be the hardest thing to start, because describing any problem in full detail can be daunting. But once you have it done, everything else becomes easier (and in many cases, finally possible to fix).
2. Identify what’s going wrong with your current solutions.
I’ll assume that you haven’t been sitting on your thumbs this whole time, and you’ve been scrambling to put your best stabs at solutions in place. High-fives to you.
Now you have to assess whether your solutions are actually working. We often think a particular idea (like hiring an employee) will help, but we don’t pay attention to whether it’s working out the way we thought it would.
It’s like we think “I did this thing, so that should fix the problem.” And if we still aren’t seeing the results we expected, we default to thinking that there must be something else we should be doing instead.
Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes our first attempt at solving a problem flat-out doesn’t work, and we need to try something different. But other times the solution we put into place isn’t performing the way we want it to, and that can be solved by tweaking it.
Look at what you’ve put in place with a set of fresh eyes. (Request someone else’s fresh eyes, if necessary.) You may be able to get some traction that way.
3. Identify what you can pay for (or overpay for) in the short term.
In the version of the future you hope to arrive in one day, you will have grown, and this will not be a problem anymore. So a primary issue here is that right now, you’re in your awkward tween years.
Something is eventually going to have to change to give you that growth spurt – maybe it’s hiring a manager, or getting a bigger facility, upgrading your equipment, or getting additional employees that can take other business activities that you’re doing now. (For example, you’re not always going to be negotiating with large clients yourself.)
These things cost money. In the here and now, we don’t want to spend this money because a) we don’t have it, or b) we’ll take a loss rather than a profit.
This may be the time when you have to take a temporary loss. The only way to make that jump may be to enter your ramen noodle years (or your ramen quarter, depending on the scale of things).
This is generally a difficult thing to make peace with, because when business is growing like crazy we think “Boo-ya! Now we’re going to be (comparitively) rich!” But you may need to look at whether this is the time to be growing the business rather than growing the bank account.
(I hated this part, by the way. With a passion.)
4. Identify unrelated things you can get help with.
If the issue is that you simply can’t keep up with production, this may not apply. If the issue is there’s not enough of you to go around, it might. Finding ways to free up more of your hours by paying (or asking) people to take on responsibilities for you can help, provided you can handle working that extra time.
This is where you might be ordering a lot of delivery meals, or getting child care, or paying someone to do your grocery shopping or walk your dog. Look at everything that you do during the day that is not work, and ask yourself if paying someone else to do those things will give you the time you need to stem the bleeding.
This will be costly, depending on what you need. But the thing you need to ask yourself is not how much it costs, but whether it justifies the cost, because that’s what matters in the end. You might hate paying someone $50 a day to walk your dog, but if it helps you secure $5,000 in business or lets you deliver a $2,000 order on time, it might be worth it. Check on a case by case basis.
5. Ask yourself how much of this will age out.
New employees suck. Not because they suck, but because everything sucks at the beginning. Your productivity is way down because you’re training them or fixing their mistakes. Their productivity is down because you’re too busy to answer their questions in a timely manner.
New processes suck. It takes time for everyone to figure out how everything works. There are bugs in the process that have to get ironed out.
This is normal, and it goes away after a while. You have to look at each problem you’re having and ask yourself if it’s an unavoidable part of growth. If it is, you can at least have some peace that it won’t always be this way. It’s like having toddlers – you run yourself ragged trying to keep them from running with scissors (and where did they FIND the scissors, anyway?!?) … but eventually that ages out.
That’s what I have off the top of my head. Hope at least some of that helps.