Staying Small: The Integration of Services – Sound & Video Contractor

Integrating your employees into a team rather than individual players can increase efficiency, profitability and morale.
Regardless of the size of your organization, once you get past being a “one-man band,” a time comes when all employees have pretty much staked out their territories. Whether by assignment, ability or the natural pecking order, each person learns his or her function in your company and has an assigned job. This is the natural order of business and seems pretty much to be cast in stone. As people grow and get better and better at what they do, they often function less as a team and more as individuals. Although their skills are vital to your success, the integration of their strengths is what gives your company an identity – the old adage about being greater than the sum of its parts.

This article will focus on how to step outside your organization for a minute, determine the different roles being played out on your “stage,” and explore how they can be betterintegrated. Although a lot of emphasis is placed on the problems that develop within larger corporate structures, the concepts addressed can be applied regardless of the size of the business.

A business is typically divided up into five areas: administration, sales, design or engineering, installation and service. Many people have jobs that cross over into different areas, but, as we add people, we tend to drop them into one of the niches that suits our needs and their capabilities – after all, that is why we hired them. Pigeon-holing serves to get the job done and strengthen the individual areas, but at what cost? Parallel organizations often develop as a way to get around personalities and avoid red tape; instead of solving a problem, we replicate it all over the company.

Throughout this article, we can use the Wonderful Widget Corporation as an example. To prove how generic this problem can be, we won’t even define a widget. Go ahead and substitute your own product or service, and see how it works.

When Fred Wonderful and his three sons started their company years ago, they never anticipated the pent-up demand for the sales, installation and service of widgets. As Wonderful & Sons Widgets grew and prospered, the four tried their best to keep up with the demand, but they soon hit that fork in the road – expand or slow down. They thought long and hard and finally decided to bite the bullet. After hiring an accountant and lawyer, the Wonderful Widget Corporation was born.

The Wonderfuls decided to split their company up into five parts. Fred, as the family leader, became the head of the administration department. He would handle day-today operations and paperwork and chart the course for the company, deciding where to expand and focus. With its continued growth, Fred added other people in his area and soon had the office humming like a well-oiled machine.

Wanda Wonderful, Fred’s wife, took over sales and marketing. She had a knack for promotion and motivation, and the team she built saw to it that everybody knew that the only widget was a Wonderful widget.

Willie Wonderful, the oldest son, handled design and engineering. He saw it as his role to make sure that the right widget was selected for each job, that all the widgets worked as advertised and that the sales people stayed honest, not selling widgets to people when a less expensive whatchamacallit would work just as well.

Figure 1. In the traditional pecking order, people grow and get better at what they do, often functioning less as a team and more as individuals,
forming paralled organizations that are less efficient and can result in territorial warfare.

The Wonderful Widget Corporation

The remaining two sons, Warner and Wilbur, headed up installation and service, respectively. Warner installed the widgets in accordance with Willie’s plans and, once a job was completed, handed it over to Wilbur for service and support.

Depending on the size of your business, this may sound either like an oversimplification or overkill.

Let’s move forward with two assumptions: that this particular organizational structure is exactly right for the Wonderful Widget Corporation and that everybody does their job well with no major personality or turf battles. If the current organizational and personality issues are not working well for your business, there is no sense in reading further. Until those problems are settled, a streamlined integration of these departments is all but impossible.

The price of success
As the widget business continued to grow, the Wonderful family found itself taking on more and more help. The responsibilities that the members had chosen for themselves had turned into full-scale departments, each with several people working as a team.

All of the employees continued to focus on their duties, and a niche mentality set in. Engineering no longer spent time getting feedback from installation or service, and sales started making promises that the other departments would have trouble keeping. Administration was so caught up in the success of the organization that it never saw these problems brewing.

The problems at Wonderful widget are not unique to their fine product line or organizational size. And, in addition to the train wreck we can all see coming, the company is missing out on numerous opportunities and a tremendous competitive advantage. The integration of services within a company is truly a “carrot-and-stick” affair, only it is possible to both eat the carrot and avoid the stick.

As an organization grows and becomes departmentalized, it is common to see several teams, each doing its own thing. Although this type of organization might be necessary for performing day-to-day tasks, looking at the larger picture shows several flaws.

The solution to this problem is an ongoing process. Cooperation and teamwork must extend throughout all levels of the organization, not just to immediate groups working together every day. And the development of this team approach is more than saying “hello” when you pass in the hallway. It is a proactive process that requires time and energy to maintain. Many ideas have helped many others down that road.

The Wonderful Widget Corporation “Team Approach” Reorganization

Figure 2. When employees are reorganized into a team approach, the integration of their strengths makes the company stronger – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Communication results in improved performance and respect for other departments.

Small and scrappy sometimes is the answer
Aside from the employee morale and responsiveness to customer needs issues, resource leveling and creating secondary areas of specialization can have profound effects on your quality of work and on the bottom line.

The concept is well-known to smaller companies where everyone has to pitch in and help when the going gets hectic. Sometimes as a company gets more successful, it loses sight of the small and scrappy attitude that helped it move forward.

A small company does not have the option of hiring more people or bringing on temporary help. To survive, it must cross train and share the work.

Temporary help does not feel ownership in your projects. Although the individuals may have the same amount of pride in their work, they go home at the end of the day or week with no thoughts as to what the impact of quality means to your future business. Your own people, even though they may ordinarily work in another area, have a lot at stake in your success and will bring hat to any job they do.

Resource labeling reduces staffing requirements. When existing personnel can be used to even out peaks and valleys in a department’s operation, those new hires can often be put off a little bit or added to areas where they might be better used. In cases where the peaks are of short duration (seasonal or project-related), other work can sometimes be postponed to a slower period, reducing the need for added personnel entirely.

Cross-trained people are available instantly. With a labor pool at your fingertips, you can react faster to a customer’s needs or an emergency order. This ability can mean the difference in winning or losing many fast-track projects. Ironically, these jobs are often the most profitable, especially if you’re the only one that can do it that quickly. Then you don’t need to shave as much from the margin. They are also the easiest to handle because their short duration allows people to return more quickly to their normal responsibilities.

When drawing from other areas, we often uncover hidden talents that are harder to find than the skills required for the primary job. One large audio manufacturer discovered this fact by accident when the company was still quite small. Years ago the company put a clerical person on an assembly line for a day or two to get caught up and discovered that her natural abilities turned into skills with a soldering iron that by far outweighed her value as a typist.

Close the circle
With any project or endeavor, the flow of information must complete a circle. Engineering designs a system, installation puts it together, and service handles all of the subsequent problems. Any problems in the design process could easily be repeated over and over. Shortcuts and enhancements developed in the installation process can become lost forever. Barriers to service can be erected that are never overcome, as in, “Boy, I wish those installation folks would leave a longer service loop in these cables.”

One company tried an experiment: project managers for certain high-profile accounts were assigned to the design and engineering department for the duration of their projects. Instead of being detached from the process, the designers had a stake in the success and would really hear about any problems. The lessons they learned allowed them to fine tune the designs to the point that change orders on the jobs because of planning errors, such as wrong camera housings ordered and insufficient spare cables pulled, were all but eliminated.

To continue the experiment, installation people were also assigned to service the account during the labor warranty period, improving the serviceability of the installations. It is amazing how much tighter a connector is crimped and how much attention is paid to marking wires when the installers know they could be stuck repairing things later!

Reducing employee turnover
One important side effect of implementing these changes is that they can dramatically reduce employee turnover. People tend to leave their jobs for one of three main reasons: poor job satisfaction, insufficient pay or a change in personal situations (such as having children or relocating because of spouse). The third reason is difficult to change, and the second might not always be feasible to change, but these ideas speak directly to increasing satisfaction and recognition and removing obstacles and frustration.

Take an informal survey of your employees and coworkers by asking which is more important, job satisfaction or compensation. As long as the compensations is not a tremendous issue (a significant increase in pay is a pretty powerful incentive to see just how green the grass can be on the other side of the hill), most people will chose the former.

In fact, the response might be so overwhelming that you might want to reconsider how you reward performance. Although a bonus is certainly appreciated while it lasts, a more comfortable, challenging and exciting work environment can be the gift that truly keeps on giving.

Technical sales training
Many companies pay little attention to the training of their sales people. For most companies, magazine subscriptions, the occasional seminar or convention and lots of cut sheets are about the extent of it. Although these are all valuable educational tools, they tell you only what the industry and your competitors are doing. How about what your own company is doing and what your resources are for each project?

Setting up informal workshops with sales and engineering personnel can be very helpful. Everyone can speak intelligently about at least one subject, and beyond what is learned at these informal get-togethers, the value in developing teaching and speaking skills has been clearly documented. All of the parties involved will walk away understanding each other’s jobs better and with renewed respect.

Don’t assume that these classes have to be a 1-way street from the technical side to the sales end. Subjects could include obstacles that sales people see and customers’ technical “wish lists,” which engineering people might not have been close enough to the marketplace to see. Many times these meetings can be used to explore what advantages your organization can develop to become more competitive.

Secondary area of specialization
People tend to wind up in career paths that travel in a different direction than their personal goals and objectives. Allowing people to choose a secondary area of work serves many important purposes. It breaks up the monotony of their every day jobs, provides your company with a greater pool of talent from which to draw in time of need and improves morale, often bringing the excitement of a hobby to the workplace. Employees work side by side with people from outside areas, which improves their interaction with those people at other times.

Implementing this secondary work could include sending a receptionist out on an installation or having your design and engineering staff handle technical support or service calls. These things need to be scheduled and formalized to avoid the feeling of “they only want me to do this because they’re stuck.” This type of activity can be done as time and conditions permit, and the rewards will be significant and immediate.

What about unions?
If a part of your organization has a collective bargaining agreement, you can still take advantage of many of these ideas; it just becomes even more important to communicate well with your employees. There are some concerns you must address.

This is not a way to put people out of work. As with any successful business, jobs are ultimately created as revenue increases. By resource leveling, you even out peaks and valleys. These peaks are usually not high enough to justify additional staff, and by the time you would be able, to do that, the peak would be over. An inability to handle these work fluctuations usually means lost business, which can mean lost jobs.

What about an apprentice program? Many unions are set up to implement an apprentice program as long as formal training plays a part. This fact is often ignored as having little value to your company when in fact it can serve as a mechanism for accomplishing these goals.

When all else fails, get the temporary employee a union card. Most unions will issue cards as long as the dues are paid. Evaluate the benefit of getting people carded and using them as additional help (and paying them the appropriate salary) in a more formal manner.

Resource leveling Once cross training is established, you in essence create a group of apprentices that can be a tremendous help in evening out the work load – or resource leveling, as my project management software calls it. We are always busy but rarely in all areas at the same time. If a warehouse full of racks must be prewired by the end of the week and Tracy from payroll has been learning how to bundle cables, put her to work, as long as payroll is on time (maybe that’s a bad example). If service calls are particularly heavy one day, see if the design team really does miss the days when they used to get their hands dirty, and provide a firsthand reminder of what those days were really like. Your employees will thank you, and the jobs will get done.

When cross-training and resource-leveling, it is important to maintain equitable pay for work done. If your receptionist makes less money than the job being assumed pays, a perception that the person is being used may negate all of the good will you are trying to create. Once you have trained someone to the appropriate skill level, adjust the compensation accordingly to avoid any morale problems.

Now get started
Most of these ideas are commonsense, and many organizations are already implementing some of them. The advantages are clear: the possibility of a gain in efficiency, profitability and morale with virtually no downside. To communicate better, spend a little time developing others professionally and personally and capture some of the team spirit that drives the most successful of organizations. This is not just an ideal for when you have a little more time to deal with it. It is something your competitors could already be doing. You need to beat them to the finish line.

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