Is a lack of discipline killing your business?

Last week I was talking to two women who run a small, fast growing business. They started by telling me what a great year they had had, and that revenue had more than doubled.

Further into the conversation however they rather ashamedly mentioned that the business – which I’m going to code name Browns – had suffered quality and customer care issues. Not big issues – the problems were all were easily fixed – but they were “embarrassing, careless, shouldn’t-have-happened” mistakes.

The Browns duo were very disappointed about the errors, not least because they were doing great strategic and ground-breaking things with the business. In truth they were mortified that the basics were stuffing up the business.

It reminded me of a study I read about US hospitals. It turns out that about 90,000 Americans die each year in hospital from infections that they catch from healthcare workers. It also turns out that there is a very effective way of reducing the number of these deaths: get healthcare workers to wash their hands before touching a patient.

What a simple solution.

Would you believe it then that a survey conducted after an intensive campaign to remind doctors to wash their hands revealed that only 43% of them actually did so.

Clearly doctors aren’t skipping the hand washing because they don’t know it’s important. And I doubt it’s because they forget. No, I think it is because they are busy, have more exciting things to do and, quite frankly, can’t be bothered.

Which is rather like what was happening at Browns. The two partners were frantically busy on exciting projects and – out of necessity – cut a few corners.

At first it was hardly noticeable, but then their team started skipping bits too and dispensing with some of the tedious stuff. Before long the shortcuts escalated into mistakes and errors and customers started complaining.

Quite simply, the Browns team had lost their discipline – their basic business hygiene. They had stopped “washing their hands”.

Businesses need discipline, the discipline to do the boring stuff over and over again, and do it well. It’s about a process that must be followed and people who understand its importance. For some entrepreneurs, like the Browns ladies, instilling such discipline is contrary to the way they like to work. In such cases hiring someone else to do it – a general manager perhaps – could be the answer.

And yes, this all sounds like business management 101. But hand washing (yes there is a special technique) is learned in first-term medical school, yet hospital acquired infections are the fourth leading cause of death in the US.

To read more Profitable Growth expert advice, click here.

Julia Bickerstaff’s expertise is in helping businesses grow profitably. She runs two businesses:Butterfly Coaching, a small advisory firm with a unique approach to assisting SMEs with profitable growth; and The Business Bakery, which helps kitchen table tycoons build their best businesses. Julia is the author of “How to Bake a Business” and was previously a partner at Deloitte. She is a chartered accountant and has a degree in economics from The London School of Economics (London University).


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