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Signs of trouble: Everyone look out for this sign

There are signs so obvious when companies or departments are in trouble that you should always take cover when you see them. In this brief post, I want to discuss one of the most significant shortcomings you find in any company or department: Lack of consistency.

Lack of consistency

Before I go into detail about what I mean by lack of consistency, I must return to "Steak Frites", this simple yet so delicious dish! Why is he talking about steak and fries?, hear me out. Whenever I dinned at a French Brasserie, I always gravitated towards a classic steak dinner; after all, it is a classic. Not only is it a pleasure to eat, but you can almost immediately tell by how this dish is prepared whether the team in the kitchen is worth its salt. You might think anyone can cook a steak and fries, but this can't be further from the truth. There are so many things to take care of, such as the quality of the meat, the degree of doneness, the crispiness of the chips, the sauce on the side, etc... A strong team in the kitchen will do all these things to perfection because they have practiced this dish time and time again. And not only will they do one steak and fries to perfection, but they will also nail it for every table. This is consistency: something perfected over time and repeatedly done well.

Consistency: something perfected over time and repeatedly done well.

The same applies to a business. You can tell when a company is running well. It manages to please its customers by repeatedly delivering services and products provided at a high standard for a reasonable price. Equally, when you look into the engine room, you will find that the company works according to internal processes that have been perfected over the years. It does not matter whether the company runs a sophisticated ERP or an excel driven system, the means don't matter. It is the skill of the team and well-thought-out routines/processes that define success. Likewise, the head chef's use of an expensive knife won't guarantee superb steak frites.

Managers, owners, or directors are sometimes tempted to fiddle with a tried and tested recipe. Don't get me wrong; it is vital to change things that have never really worked but never alter something that does not need changing! In this context, changing means altering critical components of the existing process, guideline, program, recipe, etc... so that it fundamentally becomes a new thing. This is a waste of time, focus, and energy. The key to success is small and steady improvements that eventually lead to perfection. The Japanese have even devised a word for this approach, called "Kaizen" and I could not agree more with them. It is easier to use an ax than a scalpel, the latter requires precision and a steady hand, the first only brute force. Focus on incremental change, minor improvements at a constant rate.


1. Too many chiefs, not enough busy bees

I am drawing on my own experience here, and I can tell you that whenever lots of new managers or chiefs are installed, the more the company's focus will suffer. You will notice because you suddenly get a lot of introductory emails from someone who is "Chief Operating Executive", "Chief Digital Officer", "Chief Learning Executive" or "Head of Process Improvements" or whatever. The point is that nowadays, companies, even the SMEs are loading up on Bullshit jobs, a term coined by David Graeber in his book with the same title, "Bullshit Jobs" and defined as: “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” David Graeber even came up with a term that describes this completely unnecessary management layer called “taskmasters,” which are further divided into two sub-types: unnecessary superiors, who manage people who don’t need management, and bullshit generators, whose job is to create and assign more bullshit for others. Does this ring a bell? It certainly does with me. Next time you switch on the telly and listen to the depressing business news, pay attention to the redundancy announcements by the companies. You will notice that more and more companies are laying off middle and senior management positions precisely because they figured out that these positions are not adding any value to the company. The actual workforce is either drowning in the useless tasks assigned by the taskmasters or has already been laid off by short-sighted executives, who think that people can quickly be rehired when required. So beware of too many chiefs; it is rarely a good sign, even more so when the company is not growing anymore and has to look for internal process improvements. Respectively, look for an ever-growing amount of fancy-styled PowerPoint presentations, propagating ambitious improvements. The more you see of such presentations, the higher the level of desperateness by the "taskmaster" to look busy. Another telltale sign is the growing number of meetings with no tangible outcome and follow-through because the next meeting is already around the corner. And last but not least, endless data requests with no clarity for what the data will be used for or any end - result: all smoke and mirrors.

3. Constantly changing instructions, guidelines, and processes

This leads me to the next issue: ever-changing policies, instructions, and procedures.

In my personal life, I always work the same way whenever I want to achieve something. I start by setting myself an objective, then I think about and draw up a plan on how I want to accomplish this objective, and last but not least I execute the plan by trying to reach milestones that get me ever closer to meeting the grand goal. This is usually a long-term process that requires some discipline and patience but with practice and continuous advancements (however small they are), you should get there. I don't care how fast my progress is; all I care about is that there is progress.

When it comes to work, I increasingly notice a shift towards short-termism, which leads to a frantic race to chase the quick quid at the expense of long-term security and success. Again, this desperate scramble to show results and look busy reduces focus and produces poor results. In a company, you can identify short-termism when key documents and processes are constantly changed. It is never a good sign, as it means that things were not thought through in the first place. It leads to people constantly adapting to new things before they have mastered the previous concept. This is not the way to do it: Think it through, run with it, and make incremental improvements along the way!

3. No coordination, no clarity of direction

The last sign to identify a lack of consistency is a lack of coordination and clarity at the top. This becomes apparent when multiple people or departments are tasked with doing almost the same thing. This leads to a duplication of effort and wasted work time. You will receive emails and calls from different people within the company asking for almost the same information. This gives a confused picture and is quite annoying, showing the confusion at higher company levels.

It becomes a bigger problem when you receive an assignment without clarity. It could happen that midway through the project, people get confused about what goals must be achieved in the first place. This is not very helpful, but I like to preempt such problems by outlining how I have understood the task and defining some clear goals on paper that I share with the responsible leadership before the start. Nonetheless, I can sympathize with anyone whose management changes direction with the winds.


To return to my earlier example: Consistency is like steak and fries: A simple thing of beauty!

Companies can help themselves to improve their devotion to consistency by implementing tools to help them focus on what matters. We use a Balanced Scorecard at our company, but to make it work, you must focus on the three most important goals that subsequently guide your decision-making. For example: as a flagship airline, your three performance targets could be: Flights on time, In-flight experience, or Flight cancellation rate! There are many more you could list, but the point is to figure out the most important ones and then let decision-making throughout every level of the company be guided by them. Another way to keep levels of consistency up is by making things simple around the company. The more complicated the processes and procedures are, the more difficult it will be to execute them! The more goals you have to more you can get lost in them. Last but not least: get rid of all the bullshit jobs, the paper tigers that create more work for everyone else instead of helping to reduce the workload; this explicitly includes pointless managers!

For a bit of fun at the end, a little pole:

Does your company suffer from a lack of consistency?

  • 0%Yes

  • 0%No

  • 0%More often than not


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