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I’m rubbish at ‘business’

What is a ‘good businessperson?’

I’m rubbish at business...I know I am. The only reason I’ve had any sort of a career delivering continuous improvement training and consultancy is because of free money, some ability at the actual task and blind luck!

By this I mean that I was fortunate enough to have been in the right place, at the right time, with the right experience and qualifications to be able to deliver the Business Improvement Techniques Diploma (essentially the ‘Lean NVQ’) at a time when ‘Train to Gain’ Government funding was making it completely free for businesses to engage, and therefore I didn’t have to sell anything to anyone...I just turned up and did what I did when the employers could make the people and time available. The participants got a qualification, the business got people who were capable of contributing to the improvement of their own business activities, and I was making a good living earning something I really enjoyed.

Now whether or not those businesses made the best use of these newly skilled people is for another article, but for now I want to consider something that I have casually observed as being not-quite-right, but I’ve never really thought too much about, because, as described there, I haven’t had to.

The ‘bee in my bonnet’ is about what many people perceive to be a ‘good businessman’, which appears not to be (as I would have expected) “someone who has the skills to run a good business” but instead “someone who can sell sand to Arabs”! This perception has been fuelled by TV programmes such as The Apprentice, where tribes of egotistic and arrogant twenty-somethings compete with each other to see who can be the most obnoxious, by coming up with schemes and products that they try to sell to unsuspecting customers, and all for the prize of a highly paid job, or significant business investment from Alan Sugar.

The message that this project isn’t that the best ‘businessman’ is the person who can marshal the collective skills of their team to come up with the best strategies, and then show sufficient skill, judgement and humility to ensure the best equipped people undertake the most appropriate tasks, and then that they are recognised for their talents and efforts.

No, it’s an undignified bunfight, with every participant seeing how high they can jump whilst shouting ‘pick me’! And yet it is this sort of behaviour that appears to single these people out as ‘successful businesspeople’.

Similarly, I have never been fully comfortable with Dragon’s Den, because whilst far more sedate, professional and considered than The Apprentice, the final judgement as to whether an entrepreneur gets the backing they are seeking is “how many have you sold/can you sell”. Up to now I have found this almost distasteful, but don’t forget, selling isn’t really in my nature (in fact I’ve never been able to get the brogue-wearing, zoot-suited spiv image out of my head when anyone says the word ‘salesman’!) but then two things have happened recently that combined to provide a ‘Eureka moment’, which has been important for me, and I hope might be for you, if you are in any way like me.

Filthy lucre

Firstly, I was speaking to a good friend of mine on MS Teams who runs a successful Sales business (and the one person I CAN think of without seeing the brogue & zoot suit image) and we were discussing some of the things we are looking at in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the inevitable changes that will occur in the workplace as we slowly recover, and how we should respond to them. As a result, we were chatting plans, people, benefits and culture (far more my line of country) when he mentioned that the defining factor in him being able to SELL his new ideas and approaches, is the ability to demonstrate how much CASH there will be for those customers who take them…..how much money will they make.

I must admit, that my initial gut reaction was that such considerations were slightly vulgar, and he sensed the hesitation in our Teams meeting conversation, and so he said, “what will customers ‘get’ from the things you are developing?”. Ah-ha, no problem, I immediately launched into my genuine heart-felt eulogy about employee engagement, improving working relationships, improved collaboration, greater efficiency, less waste etc, etc...my ‘home ground’.

“No, no” he said, “how much money can they expect to make as a result of engaging you?”

I’d never thought of that!

The second thing that happened was that I sat down to watch a ‘best of’ compilation from across the years of the Dragon’s Den, and expected to see what I THOUGHT I’d always seen before, which were rich people looking to see if they could get richer, but, perhaps because of the conversation with my friend, I saw something I’d never seen before, which was still certainly rich people who wanted to get richer, but I noted for the first time a genuine sense of engagement and passion when they made an offer, not just to ‘fleece’ the poor, sweating entrepreneur, but because they saw something in that person that they trusted in, as well as a concept, product or idea that they felt had commercial potential…..and it was the combination of those two things that led to them making an investment offer.

So, back to my opening assertion that I’m rubbish at business, because perhaps its more accurate to say I’m rubbish at the part of business when you have to convince someone else that what you are offering is valuable and worthwhile to them, not just in the ‘softer’ terms I’m used to using to demonstrate that what I do is worth engaging in, but also in terms of the benefits in cold, hard cash.

Running the numbers

So I did something I’ve genuinely never, ever done before, which was to work out, as accurately as I possibly could, just how much money the businesses with whom I’ve worked COULD have made as a result of my involvement, and frankly, I was shocked.

I should explain that the Modus Operandi for delivering the Business Improvement Techniques Diploma is to train groups of people (usually between 5 and 8) in the tools and techniques of continuous improvement, and then lead them in undertaking three real-live improvement activities in their own workplace. For each of these projects we would establish what situation they were trying to improve, or problem they were looking to solve and then establish the current situation (output figures, test failure rates, level of customer complaints, current rework cost etc) and then spend a couple of days actually trying to implement or suggest a solution. The situation was measured after the activity to see if the benefit had been yielded (or in the case of a recommendation being made that needed management approval and implementation whether it could be proved that the benefit would be yielded).

Whilst I’d done this in isolation over hundreds of projects, what I’d NEVER done is to try and calculate the annual benefit of each of these improvements and then establish an “average cash-benefit per project figure” for all of the work done. And so, with my new-found stimulation as my prompt I sat down to do so, and like I said, I was genuinely shocked.

For years I have been quantifying the benefit of training, engaging and including the workforce in continuous improvement ostensibly on the grounds that its ‘the right thing to do’, and that whilst there are financial benefits, the bigger ‘wins’ were happier, more engaged people who kept doing good things, even when you aren’t looking, and are ceaselessly looking for better ways to get things done because they can now see the connection in them doing so and the business being successful, and thus their long-term security being safeguarded...and I still believe that to be the case.

But like I said, I was shocked by the cash outcomes!

As I had created project reports for every single project I had ever facilitated since 2008 (a staggering 309 projects in all) I had all of the data I needed to calculate annual benefit for each activity, and so and as accurately as I could, I established the annual financial return on each project, put the data into a spreadsheet and calculated an average-per-project figure.

And don’t forget two things:

  1. These projects were undertaken by people with little or no prior experience and understanding of continuous improvement techniques, unless it was the sort of experience that made them suspicious and hostile towards it, as they often suspected it was some sort of a management trick, rather than a genuinely beneficial (and dare I say it, enjoyable) thing to be involved in.
  2. These numbers are incredibly conservative, as I have not included in any peripheral benefits the activities may have yielded in the long-term, but tried to stick to the objective benefits achieved.

So, those shocking numbers:

  • The biggest financial annual yield from a single two-day project was £4 million (yes, £4 million) which resulted from a significant output increase in a high-volume environment.
  • There were five projects that were worth over £1 million.
  • The smallest amount yielded was…..nothing, no cash benefit at all...several times. In fact 113 projects yielded nothing, some 36% of all of the projects undertaken...but this is extremely important, because I have always said that to get the big wins, you have to simply do projects that people think are beneficial, and then be patient, as the big bucks will arrive...and now I know that to be true!
  • And the key thing, the average cash-per-project figure is a staggering £58,929!
  • However, that number could be being skewed by the highest value projects, and so if you were to trim the very top and bottom of the distribution curve (ie the top 15 projects values, all over £100,000, and 15 of the zero value projects), you still arrive at a total cash benefit yielded of £2,622,936 at £9,401 per project.
  • This means that, even at this very modest interpretation of the results, every customer yielded a 14000% payback on the cost of their staff being involved!
  • And don’t forget, this benefit is being yielded DURING A TRAINING PROGRAMME, and so imagine what could be achieved if these people are now let loose as a part of everyday work life, rather than just at the all-too-rare moments when they are undergoing training.

The Head and the Heart

So, my epiphany is complete, I am now confident that training and involving people in continuous improvement work brings benefits in engagement, satisfaction, collaboration, and culture, but it also makes good, hard common sense financially as well.

Maybe I’m not so rubbish at this business thing after all!


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Published at: 03-08-2020