Work

5 ways to improve practice efficiency

01 February 2021

Stewart Bell

Stewart Bell is business coach and founder at Audere Coaching & Consulting.

Stewart Bell considers the causes of business inefficiency and provides five ways in which efficiency can be improved.

Recently, I ran a live training session for our program members called ‘Friction-Less’, and wanted to share some key insights, so you might be able to use them to free-up certain inefficiencies in your own practice.

When your subject matter is inefficiency in the advice process, there’s no shortage of things to take aim at. You can talk about:

  • software;
  • data gathering;
  • badly structured websites;
  • giving too much information upfront; and
  • giving too little information upfront.

Of course, there’s a host of other things that can easily stop prospects and clients for engaging, understanding, and ultimately sticking with advice for the long run.

The problem is, if you’re not careful, training like this can end up being a never-ending procession of ‘helpful’ ideas and ‘top tips’ which, if used the right way, can be useful, but when they’re the wrong solution altogether, the result is usually detrimental.

So, in putting this article together, I took things right back to the basics.

I wanted to dive into academia, management theory and what MBA thinkers and other experts in systematisation have to say about the causes of inefficiency and how to solve them.

Real insight only comes when you get deeper into the tools, frameworks and ways of thinking about the problem. This approach will quickly tell you whether what you’re doing is the solution that will provide you with the right outcome or, as can often be the case, is exactly the wrong solution that will only make things complicated.

There are five key principles worth knowing.

Principle 1: Gall’s Law

John Gall was an American author and retired pediatrician. He is known for his 1975 book General systemantics: an essay on how systems work, and especially how they fail, a critique of systems theory. One of the statements from this book has become known as Gall’s law.

John Gall first observed that a common form of inefficiency is caused by creating a process that is too complex from the start.

Anyone who has built spreadsheets will know what I’m talking about. You start out with an idea of how something should work, but end up creating something that breaks when you roll it out and try it for the first time.

Gall observed that every successful system has to start life as a simple one and evolve. This concept isn’t new. It’s well understood in tech start-ups, medical research and a host of other fields. In other words, inside your inefficient complex process is probably a simple one trying to get out.

Principle 2: Optimisation

There are three ways you can improve a process, but only two are tied to return on investment (ROI).

  1. The first improvement is about maximising output, or increasing what you get out of the process.
  2. The second is minimising what’s required to produce it, thereby reducing what you need to put in.

The key rule here is if you’re going to try and fix the process, never try and do both at the same time. For example, you can’t try and make your process work for more clients and have less hands involved in the process at the same time. The multiple variables at work will make it hard, or likely impossible, to work out which of your efforts is working.

Choose one thing you’re trying to improve – either getting more out of the process, or less work to get the outcome – and attack it one at a time.

Principle 3: Refactoring

I mentioned there were two ways you can change a process. Refactoring is the third, and a concept that most software programmers will know about.

When coders talk about ‘elegant’ code, often they’re talking about the work done to minimise the number of lines of code behind the scenes, thereby making it run more efficiently.

The key thing here is often the visible output doesn’t change. On the surface, it still does the same thing it did beforehand because the point isn’t to change the output. The point is to make it run more smoothly.

So, the key to remember here is that if your goal is to produce more or get it done faster, then refactoring may not be the way to go. It’s worth knowing this before you start the work.

Principle 4: Automation

Automation is something we all love the idea of, but it pays to make sure you’re choosing the right technology for your business.

Automation works really well for simple, repetitive and well-defined tasks. Trying to automate something that is complex requires significant expertise, because it’s hard to do. It’s a major reason why, despite the focus of artificial intelligence (AI), automating advice documentation is still some way off.

However, there’s a golden rule to understand, so skip it at your peril. The more automation you put into a system, the more technology-driven it becomes, meaning the more important human oversight becomes.

Any fully-automated system allowed to run rampant with even the smallest flaw, can result in a host of rework, which often costs substantially more to fix than the efficiency benefits provided. This is highly relevant if you’re thinking of implementing complex software in your practice.

So, it’s vitally important to have someone who knows how the software works and is keeping an eye to make sure it does what it’s supposed to do.

Principle 5: Cessation

This final concept from Peter Drucker – an American management consultant, educator and author, whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation – is probably my favourite. It’s the idea that sometimes the best solution to inefficiency is not to do anything.

I’m a bit of a tweaker by nature, but I’ve learned not to, because often by jumping in and trying to fix something, you’re not allowing things to run their natural course.

Take for example the client who leaves an urgent message wanting to know where their portfolio is at, but the message gets missed. Two days later, it gets picked up. You go back to the client, only to find out they’ve worked out how to log onto the platform and solve the problem for themselves. Essentially, the self-service system you designed was the optimum solution all along.

It was the inaction (yours) that truly enabled the user (client) to self-correct the inefficiency.

This is true for deciding not to work with certain types of clients, not to do certain kinds of advice and a whole host of other things, and points to the fact that sometimes doing nothing is the best option of all.

Summary

My purpose in running the ‘Friction-Less’ session, and creating the tools and module that support it, was to give the practices I work with the tools to diagnose their own inefficiencies. Usually, there can be hundreds of ways to change a process, many options for maximising the output, countless tools promising to create efficiency, and a myriad of ideas of how to organise things.

However, having the ability to step back and understand how to think about it can be way better than having a portfolio of options. Because when you start on the wrong path, friction is sure to follow.

Stewart Bell is a business coach and founder of Audere Coaching & Consulting.