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The Master Key to Success

Posted By Ron Sidman, Tuesday, April 12, 2016

 

Organizations and products that are great today were not born great. They evolved into greatness over time via experimentation and improvement.


Juvenile product company executives and new parents have one thing in common—being buried in an avalanche of information and advice. God bless the Internet but we all know it can create as much confusion as enlightenment. Well, you’ll be happy to know that in this post I’m going to lead you out of the morass of management “musts.” Yes, Virginia, there is a simple overriding key to business success.


In my post, Do You Think Like a Leader?, I briefly described the concept of “embracing evolution.”  Of all the leadership mindset components I outlined in that article, that’s the one that can have the biggest and quickest positive impact on your business life. In fact, even if you forget every other nugget of business advice you’ve ever heard, creating a culture of continuous evolution alone can have a powerful effect on your ability to drive your business forward.


You see, you are a human being. And all the other people in your company are human beings. Unfortunately, human beings aren’t perfect—even the best of them. Even you and me. People make mistakes. They sometimes make bad decisions—especially when they don’t have the information they need, which is often the case. But most human beings inherently want to be perfect—all the time. And, because they do, they get angry when they make mistakes, which leads to muddled thinking, which can lead to more mistakes. And because they don’t like to admit they’re not perfect, they sometimes feel the need to find someone to blame—which leads to poor morale. Or they get criticized by their bosses who also thinks everyone should always be perfect and they start hating their jobs. Not a pretty picture.


The cure for this potential downward spiral is simple. Create an Evolutionary Success™ (ES) culture in your company. Establish the fact that it’s continual progress you’re looking for not perfection. Perfection should be pursued but will never be totally achieved. However, adopting an ES philosophy also means never being satisfied with maintaining the status quo. It’s imperative that you continuously find ways to improve.


In practice, companies that embrace the Evolutionary Success™ approach usually evolve in increments on a consistent time schedule—most often an annual one. The ultimate “destination” is your company’s vision of perfect mission execution. You never actually get there but you keep getting closer every year. The evolution process involves, (1) thoroughly understanding true “current reality” inside and outside your business, (2) establishing goals for the desired “next level” of company performance, (3) creating and implementing strategies and projects that get you there, and then repeating the cycle again and again over time.


  

This way of thinking and operating has a number of positive benefits. 

 

1.    It makes work more interesting and rewarding.
People leave companies because their job isn’t interesting or challenging. An ES culture is exciting and stimulating. People inherently like to feel they’re learning and improving. And, to make continual progress you need to have a way to measure progress objectively. These measurements also serve a motivational purpose since they provide your staff with feedback as to how well they are doing. That’s why golfers, tennis players, and bowlers keep score. It makes the game more fun.

2.    It encourages and endorses employee development.
Since an ES company has a learning culture, employees are not expected to know everything on day 1. This can remove a lot of stress from your organization. But they are expected to know more on days 2, 3, 4 and so on. It appropriately puts a healthy focus on developing your people over time—or more accurately them developing themselves with your support. It’s no surprise that even the best professional athletes talk about striving to get better at their sport day by day.     
 

3.    It makes it okay and even necessary to take intelligent risks.
An ES company is a continual “work in progress.” It has an atmosphere that encourages constant experimentation to find out what works and what doesn’t as a way to improve and grow. This doesn’t mean it’s OK to be reckless. On the contrary, ES thinking teaches you to take chances in a way that minimizes the cost of failure. This is done through small scale tests and simulations before full-scale implementation—whether you’re developing a new product, a new process or a new business model.

4.    It converts failures into learning experiences.
If your employees are afraid to fail, they won’t be able to be innovative and they won’t admit when something’s not working and change course. You obviously need to avoid failures that are due to sloppiness or lack of discipline. Those are never acceptable. But in an ES environment, “good failures” create important knowledge that can be leveraged in the future. Recognizing that trying things that may fail in a low cost way is the way to learn, is the essence of successful entrepreneurship and high speed product development.
 

5.    It builds confidence in your ability to create your future.
We all know people who are constantly finding reasons for their lack of success. They are convinced the world is against them. People with a victim mentality create a toxic environment and drag down everyone around them. An ES mindset, on the other hand, builds on itself. Believing you can have control over your future leads to breakthrough successes which lead in turn to increased confidence and further improvement.

6.    It pushes you to achieve things you never thought possible.
Human nature causes us to create constraints that are not based on reality. We’ve all heard how running the mile in less than 4 minutes was considered physically impossible until Roger Bannister did it for the first time in human history in 1954. 46 days later his record was broken and hundreds have run sub 4 minute miles since. An ES attitude makes continuous improvement mandatory and breaks down any artificial constraints.

7.    It keeps you ahead of your competition.
A great white shark that stops moving will die from asphyxiation. A company that stops improving will be eaten up by superior competitors. Fortunately for you, not all your competitors are going to read this blog post.


Next Steps

At your next staff meeting, explore to what extent you have an Evolutionary Success™ culture in your company. Are your employees taking intelligent risks or are they playing it safe through fear of failure or criticism? Is it understood by all that you need to achieve improved performance in all key areas every year? Are you helping your employees develop by providing encouragement, training and support?


As always, if you’d like more detailed information or customized guidance regarding implementing ES practices or about other management issues, set up a Skype session with me by contacting Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or sign up on the JPMA website. Your first session is free and subsequent sessions only cost you a $150 charity donation.

   

 

 

 

 

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In Business It Pays to be Fact-Based

Posted By Ron Sidman, Tuesday, March 15, 2016


While facts don’t seem to be important to political candidates, basing business decisions as much as possible on facts rather than speculation is a critical business leadership characteristic.

In my post last August entitled “Do You Think Like a Leader”, I listed 6 guiding principles of what I called a “leadership mindset.” But in retrospect, I failed to include one of the most important leadership principles—reliance on facts.

All of us humans have a tendency to want to jump right to conclusions. At every meeting you will ever attend in your lifetime, there’ll probably be people making statements as if they were facts even though they are merely unfounded opinions. We seem to inherently need to have quick explanations for things and will often latch onto the first thought that comes into our minds or the first plausible explanation we hear. What’s worse is these falsehoods can spread like wildfire and gain credibility—especially if they come from a source whose opinions are respected. The results can be disastrous. We’re all familiar with Chicken Little telling everyone the sky is falling. But we believe or conjure up similar untruths in our business lives that can lead to hiring the wrong person, missing a sales growth opportunity, launching a product doomed to failure, or overlooking a serious internal or external problem.  

Effective leaders counter these tendencies by being obsessive seekers of the truth. They know that making sound decisions is essential to the success of the enterprise and that if you want to be right you better have the facts. Granted, sometimes getting all the data you’d like is impossible. But having the discipline to get as much as you can is a valuable trait. Here’s some suggestions for how to build the search for the truth into the fabric of your organization.

1. Make 2-way honesty and transparency part of your culture and enforce it.
Put a high priority on truthfulness from the get go. To a great extent you will reap what you sow. If you’re honest and open with your employees, they’ll be more likely to be honest with you. But be prepared to enforce this core value even if it means letting offenders go. Also, you can’t have honesty without transparency. Hiding the truth is just as problematic as telling a lie. 

 

2. Pursue measurable continuous improvement.
Determine what your “success metrics” are—the key measurements that indicate the health of your company. At The First Years we used to call them “vital signs” which is an appropriate description. You then use these metrics both for setting improvement goals and for monitoring how things are going. It helps to create charts for each so that you can instantly pick up on trends. I used to review our charts with my senior team at every weekly staff meeting.

3. Get everyone in the habit of verifying assumptions.
You’ve heard the expression that “to assume makes an ass out of u and me.” Yet we assume things all the time. We can’t help it. We assume what consumers want, what our competitors strengths are, what our strategy should be, why a product isn’t selling, what our employees know or don’t know, etc. etc. Unfortunately our assumptions are dead wrong a high percentage of the time. For the important stuff, you can’t afford to just assume. It’s too costly and dangerous as well as totally unnecessary. Most beliefs can be tested with just a little cost and effort. You can interview and observe consumers, you can carry out competitive intelligence, you can prototype product, packaging, and pricing ideas and test them before investing in them. It’s a matter of always having a healthy amount of skepticism and curiosity.

4. Use behavioral interviewing for all hiring.
I’ve made my share of costly hiring mistakes in my business career and my guess is that you have as well. No way to completely avoid this but we all can do a lot better job by getting to the truth about a candidates capabilities. Some candidates are very good at marketing themselves. We’ve all been duped—both in hiring the wrong person and rejecting the right one. There are screening techniques like behavioral interviewing (e.g. Hiring 3.0 by Barry Shamis) or work simulations that can help you get to the facts about a candidate’s capabilities.

5. Insist on financial reporting accuracy and completeness.
A particularly dangerous place to play games with the truth is in the financial arena. Sometimes this is not so much faking the numbers as it is blinding yourself from reality. First and foremost you need a CFO or accountant that’s not afraid to tell you things you don’t want to hear. But then you need to make sure that you have your eyes wide open with respect to things like building in adequate profit margins, monitoring expenses, projecting cash flow, budgeting for unexpected expenses, anticipating capital replacement needs, and practicing proper internal controls.

6. Design your feedback system.
It’s up to you as CEO to put in place your own information feedback system that keeps you informed about what’s happening inside and outside the company on an ongoing basis. You need to ask yourself what you need to know, qualitatively and quantitatively, to do your job. The charts I mention in #2 above is one element. But they won’t tell you about things like new competitive threats, internal problems that haven’t surfaced yet, untapped growth opportunities, or technological innovations that might impact you positively or negatively. You’ll need other methods to keep you up to date including getting out of your office and seeing for yourself what’s really going on.

 
Next Steps    

Do your own audit of the extent to which your company operates with a fact-based mentality in day to day activities and interactions. And, see if there are assumptions built in to your mission and strategy that have yet to be confirmed? Consider how becoming more fact-based would improve company results. As always, if you need some assistance, take advantage of JPMA’s CEO Mentor program by contacting Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or signing up on the web site.

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Preserving Your Most Precious Resource

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, February 17, 2016

 
Time is arguably a CEO’s most scarce and valuable resource. Money is a valuable resource too. But when you run low, there are ways to raise more. You can’t raise more time. The more time you have for doing real CEO work, the more successful your company will be. Yet it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in time wasting activities.

I try to always practice what I preach. It can be embarrassing if you don’t. So after my last post, Feeling Your Customers’ Pains, I decided to call some of my customers, JPMA CEOs, to see if I could get a better understanding of their pain points. It was absolutely fascinating and I’m making this activity a part of my personal CEO Mentor job process going forward. My heartfelt thanks to those of you who participated.

I talked to CEOs from companies who were just getting started in the industry all the way up to global  industry-leading brands with 100’s of millions in annual sales. What was intriguing to me was how similar many of their issues were. I’ll be addressing some of the common concerns in future posts. But the challenge of time management for CEOs was definitely almost a universal worry. How do you have the time to do the critical CEO jobs like regularly talking directly to customers that I encouraged in my last blog post when you’re up to your neck in alligators? Here’s my take on some of the things you can do to get the absolute most productivity from the time you have available.

1. Know when to say no.
As you get bombarded with requests for your time every day, you have to have a way to know what to say NO to. It’s hard to turn things down because you’re probably a doer by nature and you know you’re ultimately responsible for making sure the company does well. But, as requests or opportunities come along, the first question you need to ask yourself is, is this something that’s 

going to further our Mission by taking us from where we are now up the path to our Vision? Your 

Mission describes how you improve your customers’ lives and your Vision describes what things will be like when your company fulfills its Mission. Everything you spend your precious time on should somehow be moving you along this path. 

2. Only do what only you can do. 
There are two kinds of what I call real CEO work—(1) turning continuous learning into designing and continuously improving the business model and, (2) and ensuring the efficient and effective operation of the overall business model. These are the two things you can’t delegate to lower level employees. You can split these roles up among two head honchos if you like and that’s often the case. Could be a co-CEO structure or a CEO/COO approach.  

Now, I fully understand that in smaller companies the CEO does not have the luxury of delegating all the non-CEO work because you just can’t yet afford to hire enough staff. But at least understand you have to schedule the real CEO work first before filling in your calendar with other things. And keep striving to get to a point where you can delegate more and more of the non-CEO work. 

Of course to do that you need people reporting to you who are capable of doing what you’re delegating to them without coming to you for help. Ideally you should hire direct reports who can do the work better than you can. Weak links are enormous time drains. If you’ve got one, fix it fast. 

3. Leverage the power of technology.
Have you explored productivity improving apps or programs that can improve your “CEO process?” Are you taking full advantage of their capabilities?

a. Time Scheduling--I can’t begin to tell you how much time I’ve saved and how much more I’ve accomplished by effectively using tools like Google Calendar to ensure that I’m focusing on what’s most important first and not overscheduling myself. It’s not just about using a calendar app, it’s about applying the best practices to fully utilize them. 

b.Staying Current--Staying up to date with “current reality” is a critical CEO responsibility. To reduce the amount of time you spend staying up to date with news about customers, competitors, relevant technologies, or anything else you need to be on top of, use one of the customizable news feeds like Google News, Flipboard, News360, etc.

c.Minimizing Travel--How much time-gobbling travel could you eliminate by using Skype, Face Time, Go To Meeting, etc.

 

4. Practice crisis avoidance.

Nothing will wastefully eat up your time more than an unexpected crisis. Suddenly everyone’s attention is dragged off the important building and running the business work and sucked up by firefighting tasks. Crises in the JP industry can be product recalls, negative product publicity, employee law suits, bankruptcy of a major customer, loss of a key employee, and so on. I’m not trying to depress you but sh_t happens. I would suggest that as part of your strategic planning process, you include in your SWOT analysis all the possible internal or external crises and list them in priority order by the degree of likelihood and negative impact on your company. Then create strategies to minimize the likelihood of the highest ranking ones happening. There’s no excuse not to do this.

5. Organize and simplify your office.
One simple but useful tool in the Lean Six Sigma process improvement toolkit is called “5S.” It’s aimed at creating a more efficient and visual workplace and can be applied just as successfully in your own office as it can throughout your company. It really will save you time.

a. Sort—Make sure you have the right materials in your office available for your daily work. Eliminate anything not used.

b. Set in Order—A place for everything and everything in its place. Set up a system so that you can find whatever documents or information you need quickly and easily. Have a simple, visual, easy to access dashboard that shows you the key performance indicator status and trends.

c. Shine—Keep everything clean and in working order.

d. Standardize—Establish guidelines for daily routines, checklists, and logs where useful so important activities aren’t overlooked.

e. Sustain—Regularly audit whether you are sustaining the other 4S’s.

 

6.Never again hold or attend a poorly managed meeting.
How much of your time is wasted by:

a. Meetings you didn’t have to be at in the first place—solution: know when to say no (see #1).

b. Lack of a well-thought out agenda—solution: make agendas with a specified time span an absolute requirement that must be sent with the invitation.

c. People showing up late or unprepared—solution: make attendance and active participation part of your culture and enforce it.

d. Meetings that could have been replaced by emails—solution: question the need for a meeting when invited.

e. A/V equipment not working properly—solution: should be checked in advance.

f. Poor meeting facilitation—solution: facilitators should be trained.

 

7.Don’t neglect your own physical and emotional health. 
It’s easy to forget that poor health can jeopardize both the amount of time you can devote to your role as CEO and the quality of that time. Make sure health related activity is baked into your schedule with high priority. And, don’t overload yourself. A CEO health issue is another potential company crisis that you definitely want to avoid.

Next Steps

It could be very revealing to keep an accurate log for a week of where your time actually goes. Then see if any of these 8 recommendations could help you eliminate wasted time. I have one more time-saving recommendation. Don’t be reluctant to take advantage of resources outside of your company (like the JPMA CEO Mentor Program) that could help you quickly put some of these ideas into action. Contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or sign up on the web site. Your first session is free and subsequent sessions only cost you a $150 charity donation. It could be one of the best investments you’ll make this year. 

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Feeling Your Customers’ Pains

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, January 11, 2016

 

Since your business’s success depends heavily on the extent to which you improve your customers’ lives, finding out where your customers are “hurting” is a critical skill—but how best to do it may surprise you! 

I remember facilitating a focus group of new parents in the early days of my company. My goal was to get some new product ideas from the assembled moms so I took the direct approach. I asked them what products they needed that weren’t available. The answer was frightening. “Everything we need is on the market right now,” they told me. Yikes! What do I do with that? Maybe going to law school was not such a bad idea after all.

 

The mistake I made was to think that my customers could come up with innovative product ideas. They can’t—simply because they don’t have any idea what’s possible. As Henry Ford famously observed, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

 

Every business (and non-profit too) exists or should exist for the same purpose—to improve the lives of some segment of the population. The way you improve people’s lives is always by eliminating pains or fulfilling aspirations of one sort or another. So, being able to determine how well your current products and services are doing that job and identifying opportunities for new customer pain-killers or dream-fulfillers is a critical skill for the leader of any organization.

 

So how do you proactively identify opportunities for customer life improvement? While your customers can’t tell you what they would buy, what they can tell you is where it “hurts” and how much it “hurts”. In other words, through conversation or observation you can detect their frustrations and unsatisfied needs. Then it’s your job to come up with the solutions. As another American icon, Thomas Edison said, “I find out what the world needs. Then, I go ahead and invent it.”


Here’s how to make sure you have an accurate picture of “what the world needs”:

 

1. Remember you have multiple types of customers.
Most juvenile product companies sell to end users primarily through retailers and etailers and maybe to some extent directly via their own web site. The result is you are likely to have multiple customers in the broad sense of the word—all of whose behaviors you need to understand:

  • Users—the people that use your products (parents, grandparents, other caregivers, babies)
  • Payers—the people who buy the products (some, like gift-givers, are not “users”)
  • Intermediaries—wholesale, retail, and e-tail buyers and executives
      

2. Personally conduct 1:1 interviews and observation sessions with existing and potential customers on a regular basis.
There is no substitute for you as the CEO periodically conducting one-on-one discussions with customers as well as actually observing their behavior at least to some degree. While others in your company will have direct customer contact and may be conducting surveys and focus group sessions, much is lost if you are only reading reports or listening to someone else’s account. You simply can’t afford to be even slightly out of touch with your “users”, “payers”, and “intermediaries.” As the founder or leader, you are going to pick up on things that no one else in your company would recognize. You need to hear and see the unadulterated truth if you really want to make sure you have a firm grasp of reality.

While there’s certainly also value to be gained from surveys and focus groups, there’s no substitute for a face to face discussion or observation of behavior. The way someone says or does something and their body language can tell you things you’d never pick up over the phone or in a survey. And you can’t do a good job of following up on survey answers in a probing way. Also one-on-one’s trump focus groups in terms of feedback validity. In a focus group, people will say the politically correct things and will be influenced or intimidated by what others are saying.

3. The goal is to thoroughly understand your customers’ relevant processes.
You will want to explore the processes your customers employ to buy and use your current products and those you may wish to develop in the future. For example, from “users”, you may want to know how they perform a particular parenting process like bottle feeding or traveling with their baby. From the “payers”, you’d want to learn what their process is for making buying decisions including to what extent they are influenced by the “users” or other advocates and influencers. In particular, if you’re not observing and talking to your customers as they shop the retail infant department, you’re missing out on a wealth of valuable information.

Interviewing intermediary (wholesale, retail, or e-tail) buyers poses some special challenges. It can be difficult to get an appointment with them especially if they are not current customers, their time is limited, and you will need to be sensitive with your questioning regarding what they may feel is proprietary information. But nonetheless, you need to know their pain points. My experience has been that if you make it clear up front that your purpose is to identify ways to make their lives easier, they will be more likely to cooperate. You could explore with them things like what concerns they have about trends in the industry, how they stay up to date with new products entering the marketplace, what their department-wide priorities are, or what their experience has been with your salespeople or customer service staff. I had my best meetings with buyers or retail executives when I could get them out of their office in a more relaxed setting but that won’t always be possible.

4. Focus on what they have actually done, not what they might do.
You’re looking for the facts not speculation from them or you. Don’t go into these sessions with a preconceived notion regarding what your customers’ problems are or what solutions you’d like to offer. And for heaven’s sake don’t try to sell them anything. If you’re a natural salesperson, that will be really difficult. Just ask open-ended questions that get them to describe how and why they do what they do. Get them to talk about themselves and listen to what they’re saying. Make believe you’re a detective or psychiatrist trying to get to the truth. And don’t be satisfied with surface level responses. Probe like a detective (in a nice way) with follow up questions like:

  • “And then what did you do?”
  • “Why did you do it that way?”
  • “How did you feel about that?”
  • “What worries keep you up at night?”
  • “Did anyone help you make that decision?”
  • “What did you enjoy most about that?”
  • “What was an example of an ideal day for you?”

5. Look for the significant, common “pain points” or unfulfilled aspirations.
The whole idea is to be alert for things multiple customers say that you know you can fix or provide. You don’t have to offer a solution on the spot but your expertise and gut will be telling you it’s fixable. In my company, we used to call these “customer insights.” Obviously if only a few customers have the problem it may not be worth fixing. But if you hear it over and over again from many interviewees, you know you’re on to something. It’s those insights that will be the seeds of the “new” and “improved” products, services, or even an entire new business model that you’ll be able to develop.

 

Next Steps

If you’re not already talking to customers in this way, give it a try on a small scale. Pick just a few “users”, “payers”, and intermediaries” and conduct in depth one-on-one interviews as described. Visit some stores and watch your customers in action buying yours and competitive products. Then ask them what their selection process was. Hopefully you’ll get at least a few magical “aha moments” which will encourage you to make this technique part of the way you run your business.

 

As always, if you would like more information on this or any management subject, take advantage of JPMA’s CEO Mentor program. Just contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or sign up on the web site to set up a free introductory Skype or Face Time session.

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Do You Think Like a Leader?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, August 24, 2015

 

Overview

The primary skill you need to successfully create and run a juvenile products company or any company for that matter is “leadership”. The better leader you are, the more successful you’ll be. While there may be such a thing as a “born leader”, I believe that anyone who really wants to be an effective leader can become one if they’re willing to devote the time and effort to it.

Step one in improving your leadership skill is to recognize that it’s in fact a way of thinking, a mindset.  Leaders simply think differently than non-leaders. And, to a large extent, leadership thinking is contrary to basic human nature. That’s why it takes time to master it and why great leaders are so rare.

The Leadership Mindset

Over the course of my career, I gradually learned how to be a more effective leader—more slowly than I would have liked and usually by trial and error. But, frankly, it wasn’t until I sold my company and could objectively look back at my own strengths and blind spots as well as study the attributes of truly great leaders that the concept of a leadership mindset began to fall into place. I’ve now come to believe that the thinking and actions of virtually all successful leaders are governed by six guiding principles.

1. Focus on the Mission

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” –Mahatma Gandhi

 

While human nature pushes us to focus on short-term urgent matters, a leader is not a leader without passionate commitment to a clear, compelling, long-term mission. In a business, that mission always involves somehow improving the lives of customers and, by so doing, other stakeholders as well. Ideally, a well-defined mission includes both a “purpose” for existence and a “vision” of perfect purpose fulfillment. And because you're likely to have competitors, your mission needs to offer customers more value than your competitors can. Obviously, you can't figure out how to improve people's lives unless you thoroughly understand their needs. So that's the knowledge base from which your mission will emerge. Once you've taken that knowledge and identified life-changing benefits you can deliver, you need to make sure your mission is not only clear to you, but also to your investors, your employees, and other key stakeholders. This is best done by carefully crafting a “mission statement.” It will provide both motivation and direction for your company’s efforts.

2. Think Holistically

 “A system is more than the sum of its parts; it is an indivisible whole. It loses its essential properties when it is taken apart.” –Russell Ackoff


Leaders understand that a business is a “system” that you must design and build to accomplish your mission. On the contrary, human nature tends to draw us into working on the details of things while losing sight of the whole. Leaders know they need to always keep the overall business system in mind—the mission, corporate culture, business processes, required resources, and financial formula. They are able to maintain the 40,000 foot high view of their business—seeing all the system components and the way they interact with each other and seeing how the business system interacts with external systems like the marketplace. They know that fixing a component is not enough to fix the entire system and that tinkering with one part will have an impact on the rest.  

3. Embrace Evolution

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we catch excellence.” —Vince Lombardi

 

A leader knows that a business is not born as a finished entity but needs to evolve over time. Human nature causes us to want quick results and get frustrated when we don’t get them. Leaders recognize that missions are achieved by the steady, relentless, ongoing process of always comparing an accurate assessment of current reality to the vision of perfect mission accomplishment and then improving the business system to close the gap. A leader thinks of running a business as a proactive journey of continuous improvement informed by experience and necessitated by changes in the marketplace. Ups and downs are a necessary part of the process. A static, un-evolving company, on the other hand, is doomed to failure.

4. Leverage Processes

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing” –W. Edwards Deming

 

Leaders appreciate the power of process thinking. It’s human nature to treat each event in a reactive way and as a discrete event. A leader recognizes that there are repetitive activities in every business that are critical to accomplish the mission. And that these activities can be designed to efficiently produce consistent, high-quality, competitor-beating results. It takes discipline to develop and implement processes and leaders understand the importance of discipline. In the words of Jim Rohn, “We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.”  

5. Enable Teamwork

 “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” –Phil Jackson

 

A business is not a machine. It's a system in which people get things done. Leaders don’t do the work themselves, they enable others to successfully do things. So they need to understand the dynamics of what enables people to work well on their own and with each other. This even extends outside the company itself to the company’s suppliers and channel partners. It can be a balancing act at times. On one hand you need to treat employees with respect and sensitivity to their needs. On the other hand each individual must be held accountable for doing their job. To accomplish this, first and foremost you need to hire “mission-appropriate” and team-oriented people. Then you need to make sure they know and understand their roles and expected performance. Finally you’ll need to create and maintain an environment and culture that enables them to work together to fulfill the common mission. That culture is very much influenced by the example a leader sets through their own actions and interactions.

6. Seek Simplicity

"Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand." –General Colin Powell

 

Leaders simplify and clarify. But, making things simple is hard work. Simplification is contrary to human nature. The innate tendency is to add things, to make things more complex—more features on products than customers need, more steps in processes than are really necessary, pricing schedules too convoluted for customers and employees to understand. Simplicity allows focus and prevents unnecessary costs and actions. Seeking simplicity means not adding what isn’t absolutely necessary and eliminating what is no longer necessary. It means breaking up big projects into small chunks. It means expressing your mission and culture in clear, simple terms. And it means recognizing and reinforcing simple financial fundamentals like the need to budget and not letting your expenses exceed your revenues.  

Next Steps

Assuming you have a clear and compelling mission and vision that you and your staff share (if not, start there), see if there’s one of these guiding principles that you’re not currently practicing and that, if adopted, could have a significant positive impact on your organization. Then start practicing it each day until it becomes second nature. Don’t expect quick improvement (see “Embrace Evolution”). It might help if you can find a coach to give you feedback and encouragement. If you get good results, move on to the next principle and repeat.      

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A Product is Not a Company

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, March 26, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I’ve worked with a lot of JP startups and smaller companies and have noticed a fairly common misconception. There’s often a belief among entrepreneurs that all you need to be successful in business is a product with a competitive advantage. But in reality, a product does not a company make. Yes, you need at least one great product. But that’s only a start. There’s a vast difference between creating a product and creating a business. They do, however, have one thing in common—they are both design exercises.

Unfortunately, instead of taking the approach of designing the entire business concept at the outset, it’s more likely that a startup will approach issues in an incremental, 3 steps forward—2 steps back fashion. What’s my product? Now that I have a product, how much should I sell it for? Okay I think that price will work so how will I get it manufactured? All right I’ve got a subcontractor and got my first delivery but whoops given what I wants per piece, I can’t sell it and make a profit. Oh well, while I’m looking for a new manufacturer, I need to get some sales reps to get rid of the inventory in my garage. Hmmm, the reps aren’t that interested and want a big commission. Yikes people I’ve shown it to don’t seem to understand the product from the packaging—might need to redo that. Great I’ve got the product in some stores and it seems to be selling but how do I grow the business? And so on and so forth. This approach to creating a business can be very costly and painful and take an unnecessarily long time.

There’s a better, less stressful way. Either before (preferably) or just after you’ve come up with your first product idea, take a step back and design the entire business—or at least what you think the overall business should look like based on what you know at the time. All business designs, a.k.a. business models, are made up of six components—Value Proposition, Culture, Channels, Processes, Resources, and Financial Formula. If you want to see what they are in some detail, take a look at my post from last year “Is Your Business Model Obsolete” (insert link).

Designing a new business is much like sculpting or wood-carving. A business model is something that evolves as you whittle away at it over the life of the company based on ongoing learning. But it’s something you must always work on with “a sense of the whole”—just like a sculpture. That’s because all six business model components need to integrate and support each other or the system just won’t work. Systems thinking Guru Russell Ackoff used to illustrate this point by talking about designing the ultimate automobile. One seemingly logical approach would be to find the best version in the marketplace of each car component and then put them all together. For example use a Ferrari engine, BMW transmission, Mercedes suspension, etc. But the result would be a car that doesn’t work because the components are not designed to work together.   

Another reason it’s important to think about the entire business model and not just your product(s) is that your competitive advantage may come from business model components other than product. Take Dell for example. Their success came from creating a new way to deliver computers to customers rather than the computers themselves. Every business model component is an opportunity for innovation.

Just like product design, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to make business design mistakes on paper at an early stage than trying to correct mistakes after you or others have invested a lot of money. Certainly your business model 1.0 will evolve over time as your company grows and becomes more complex. But even in the very early stages of your company’s life, it pays to be a total business model thinker.

Next Steps

On a white board or piece of paper draw six columns representing each of the business model components. With your other key staff members, brainstorm the design of each component in sequence making sure the components will integrate and support each other. Keep working on this until you’ve created a business model that you think can be successful. Then put the proposed model in front of some outside people you trust for further critique and improvement. Then make it happen.   

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Time Marches On

Another year passes by in your life in the juvenile industry. Interesting that the transition to a new year seems to be a trigger for getting out from amongst the “trees” of day to day business detail and going up to 40,000 feet to survey the whole “forest”. Moving to a new year is also always a reminder of how quickly time passes. What a great opportunity to stop the world and assess whether you are spending your precious time on the things that will truly enrich your life and create a life history with few if any regrets.

Here’s an exercise that I think can get you off to a good start in the new year. Get a pad of paper and pen or pencil and write down your answers to these twenty questions. Most likely your response to each question will influence the answers to the later questions. So please answer the questions in sequence. When you’ve finished, you just may feel more in control of your destiny.

Looking Back to Last Year 

1.       Do you feel you maintained a healthy balance between your personal and business life? If not, what prevented that?

2.      What were your most satisfying personal accomplishments?

3.      What were your most satisfying business accomplishments?

4.      How do you feel about last year on the whole (happy, satisfied, frustrated, stressed out, bored, etc.)?

5.       What were the primary contributors to your overall feeling?

6.      What percent of the time last year did you truly enjoy running your business?

7.       Are there decisions or choices you wish you made last year but didn’t?

8.      Do you feel you’re a better leader/manager now versus at the beginning of the year?

9.      Were you able to stay aware of “current reality” inside and outside your company during the year or were you often blind-sided?

10.   Do you feel that your company’s business model[1] and its components have evolved in a positive way during the year?

a.       Has your competitive advantage increased?

b.      Is your culture clear and enforced when necessary?

c.       Are you in the right distribution channels? Communication to customer channels?

d.      Are your critical processes (e.g. business model improvement, product development, production, sales, etc.) well-designed, documented (even if just in checklist form), and followed?

e.       Do you have the right people? The right facilities?

f.        Are you well-financed and making an adequate profit?

Entering the New Year

1.       Are you going into the new year with a positive, can-do attitude? Is your staff?

2.      Do you have a clear picture of what your role as leader/manager should be this year (e.g. coach on the sidelines, player-manager, teacher, Walton-esque evangelist)?

3.      Does your staff share your vision for what your company will look like at the end of the year?

4.      Are you psychologically ready to make the tough decisions?

5.       Are you willing to test new ideas and directions knowing that many will not meet expectations? Is your staff willing?

6.      Are there critical business model deficiencies that need to be fixed now?

7.       Do you have mechanisms in place to give you the visibility you need to know how well your business model components are working all the time?

8.      Are there things (products, processes, programs, etc.) that need to be eliminated to provide resources for what’s important?

9.      What are the top three things that you absolutely, positively, have to get done by the end of the year no matter what?

10.   Are you so excited about what this year can bring that you can’t wait to get started?

I hope answering these questions caused you to think about your life and your business from a new perspective. Please let me know if it did. As always, JPMA's CEO Mentor Program stands ready to help you when you need it. A happy, healthy, less stressful, and prosperous New Year to all!


[1] Your company’s entire system for providing value to your customers while making a profit

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New Product Development 101

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

At the ABC Expo, one of the most common requests from members whose booths I visited was for advice on how to create or improve their new product development process. Having a well-designed NPD process can be a powerful source of competitive advantage. You might be surprised to find that even some of the larger companies in the industry have far less than optimum product development methodologies.

But before I talk about the latest and greatest best practices in NPD, it’s important that I remind you of one of the universal principals of management excellence—holistic thinking. Don’t create/fix the parts, create/fix the whole business. Improving product development involves more than just the product development process itself.

Your Business Model

In a recent post (“Is Your Business Model Obsolete?”), I outlined the six components of all business models--Value Proposition, Culture, Channels, Processes, Resources, and Financial Formula.

A properly drafted Value Proposition will dictate what type of product development you need. It defines who your target customers are, what products/categories you will produce, and where your superior value versus competition will come from. For example, you might decide that your competitive advantage will be superior in-use performance. Or, conversely it might be comparable performance at a lower price. You can’t really start to put in place an effective NPD process until you’ve determined these things—in writing.

With respect to Resources, you will need process “performers” who have the appropriate skills for each process step. For example, no matter how good your development process is, if you don’t have people involved who are creative enough to come up with great ideas or access to engineers who can convert the ideas into reality, you’re dead in the water.

And, you better make sure your company’s Culture attracts and retains the right kind of people and supports the behaviors you’ll need. For example, if you want to be an innovator, you’ll want your culture to encourage and reward creative thinking and intelligent risk-taking. 

A Proposed NPD Process Framework   

What follows is an outline of a basic, flexible, 6 stage framework that I believe could be customized to work for the majority of companies in the juvenile industry.

General NPD Process Principles

Of all the common business processes, new product development has probably seen more innovation in best practices over the past 20 years than any other. No doubt this is due to the impact it can have on the bottom line. Here are some generally accepted current principles to help you better understand and use this framework to design your company’s complete process:

·         Dividing the process into stages separated by critical checkpoints for CEO or senior team approval before proceeding to the next step.

·         Performing functions concurrently where possible to save time.

·         Understanding that consumers will generally not tell you what they need but they can recognize a good idea when they see it.

·         Recognition that you need to sift through a large quantity of possible ideas in the “Idea Generation” stage to find one great idea—i.e. you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.

·         The use of observation of consumer behavior as a source of new product ideas—e.g. watching parents putting their baby to bed to gain insights into possible product features.

·         Getting general market and competition input from trade customers (buyers) in the “Design Strategy” stage but not showing concepts to trade customers until you have a final working model at the end of the “Development” stage.

·         Thinking of the “Development” stage as a series of relatively rapid and cost-minimized design—test (with consumers)—learn—redesign iterations where the concept evolves over time rather than being totally defined and financially justified upfront. The idea is to get feedback from consumers early, often, and at as low a cost as possible.

·         Not having an itchy trigger finger but killing projects that are clearly not viable as early as possible.

·         Getting to market quickly—proceeding to “Deployment” and launch with an acceptable but maybe not perfect product and then refining it in later versions (see stage no. 6 “Product Improvement”).

·         Keeping the process simple and bureaucracy at a minimum.

 

Next Steps

In preparation for introducing a new or improved NPD process in your company, get all those in your company who will be involved in product development, as well as any appropriate outside resources, to talk about and clarify/revise if necessary your Value Proposition, needed Resources, and desired Culture. Once those components are set, you could begin to document your process by simply creating a checklist for each of the 6 stages in the framework. Getting even a basic process in place is far better than having no process at all. You can always get more detailed later.  

If you’d like some guidance or suggestions, you can set up one or more Skype sessions or telephone conferences with me under JPMA’s CEO Mentor Program that benefits K.I.D.S. Contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org.

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Breaking Out of Mind Prison

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In my last blog post, I outlined how every organization’s business model has the same six components—(1) Value Proposition, (2) Culture, (3) Channels, (4) Operating Processes, (5) Resources, and (6) Pricing. I also talked about the need for continuous evolutionary business model improvement. In other words, these components need to change over time as you learn better ways and as the world around you changes.

But why is it that so many CEO’s in both small and large companies—including many in our industry—are reluctant to embrace business model change in a systematic way? Staying in your mental comfort zone can be a way to avoid stress. If something worked for you in the past, making fundamental changes can feel like jumping into the abyss. How many juvenile product companies have simply modeled themselves after what their competitors are doing or what used to work 10 years ago but is no longer appropriate for the times?

We all have mental models that structure how we see the world and drive our actions. You could define a mental model as a set of assumptions about reality. Just think Republicans versus Democrats or pro-life versus pro-choice. In business too, we all develop mindsets about what works and doesn’t work based on our nature and our experiences. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge talked about the importance of “. . . the discipline of managing mental models—surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works . . .” While the easy thing is to keep on doing what you’ve been doing, it’s more crucial for business survival than ever to not only be open to alternatives but to force yourself to routinely consider them.

Unfortunately, most managers never adopt this discipline. They may not even be consciously aware of the set of assumptions that is guiding their actions so they are unable to change it when change is necessary. Their mindset has become a mind prison. In my consulting work, as an outsider, I can often immediately see business model changes in client companies that would have rapid beneficial effects. But to get the client CEO to adopt the change is often a struggle simply because their mental model is blocking their view of current reality. The first step towards breaking out of jail is to recognize you’re incarcerated.

Managing your mental model is not a one-time thing. It needs to be done regularly. CEO’s not only need to manage their own mental models, but those of their employees as well if they expect to succeed. By “manage” in this case I don’t mean coerce. You need to work together with your senior team to jointly evolve first your mental model and then your business model.

This is why kids in garages can out-innovate giant corporations. The kids aren’t in mind prison yet. They’re open to new ideas and driven by optimism that is untainted by painful life experiences. They’re also willing to put in the time and effort required. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a wet behind the ears twenty-something in a garage to manage your mental model rather than be blinded by it.

What you need to do is institutionalize regular (at least annual—maybe even quarterly) review of your mental model and then your business model and its components. This is the new “strategic planning”. It’s not a planning exercise, it’s a design exercise and as such it starts with a clean slate every time. Once you know what business model components you want to change, then you plan the implementation. But, you first start with an open-minded design process. And, if you commit to doing it on a regular basis and with a “flexible mind”, it’s guaranteed to break your mind out of prison and keep you out.

If you’d like help creating the right business model development process for your company, sign up for a series of Skype mentoring sessions.

Action Suggestion for This Month: Meet with your key managers and list on a flip chart all your “mental model” assumptions and beliefs about the industry, target consumers, competitors, employees, channels of distribution, product opportunities, pricing, etc. Consolidate the list to the most important and then see if you can reach consensus and validate the accuracy. That exercise alone would be very beneficial. Then, based on these “shared assumptions”, discuss what your business model might look like if you were creating it today. You might be surprised and energized by the results.   

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Is Your Business Model Obsolete?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, May 29, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2015

If you weren’t able to attend my presentation at the recent ABC Spring Educational Conference in Orlando, here’s a summary of what I talked about. Hope you find it interesting.

Everyone seems to agree that the world is changing more rapidly than ever. I started The First Years, Inc. in 1972 and ran it for 32 years until it was sold in 2004. At the time of the sale, our sales were over $140 million and growing, we had $28 million in cash, and we had a solid business model in place. However, if I were starting a company today, the model would be quite different. Too much has changed.

If you’re not getting the financial results you’d like, it may well be that your business model has not kept up with the times. But even if you are doing well, it’s wise to have a mindset of continuous evolutionary business model improvement.

What do I mean by a business model? It’s your company’s entire system for delivering value to your customers while making a profit. It includes the products you sell of course but it’s not just about products. For example, the IPod would have been nothing without ITunes and the ITunes store concept. For the purpose of creating or improving a business model, it’s helpful to understand its components. Every company whether it’s a juvenile product manufacturer, retailer, restaurant, or airline has the same six components.

Your Value Proposition is who your customers are, what you provide them—your products or services, and why they will prefer you to the alternatives—specifically what unique benefits you provide. How you make their lives better?

Your company’s Culture is the critical “soft” stuff that holds everything together. Culture includes your core values, your shared vision of what your company can become, your brand identity, and even your compensation and rewards policy because of how that impacts core values like teamwork. Companies with long-term success typically have strong cultures that are vigorously enforced—like Walmart, Apple, Disney, and Southwest Airlines.

You need a way to get your products or services as well as your all important “why we’re better” message to your customers. You do that through Channels. You may sell through specialty retailers, mass retailers, etailers, your own web site, mall kiosks, drones? Some combination? Your “why we’re better” message may get delivered via the same routes for example packaging, store personnel or signage at retail or information on a web site or through other media?

Your Operating Processes are all the ongoing routine functions your company performs. Like developing products, managing your human resources, maintaining relationships with retailers and consumers, producing products, etc. This is a component that should be improved continuously no matter what.

Resources are the people, skill sets, facilities, equipment, and financial strength required to perform your processes. This is another component that should continuously improve—especially the quality and skills of your people.

And, finally Pricing is the financial formula of your business. What are your revenue streams? Just product sales or also fees for services? What’s your pricing structure? What margins do you and any intermediaries make? What are your costs? Will all these components work together to make a profit?

So that’s all there is to it. These components are the dials you can turn, so to speak, to create and improve your business and there are an infinite number of potential variations limited only by your imagination.

I recommend to my clients that at least twice a year they update their understanding of internal and external current reality and gather their key staff members to review the current business model and identify possible improvements. The question to be asked is, “If we were starting the business today, how would we design our business model?” This “business model evolution” process is replacing the old annual strategic planning exercise we’ve all used in the past. It takes a holistic view of the entire company rather than a piecemeal approach that can produce unintended consequences. It’s more likely to generate breakthrough versus incremental improvements. And implementation is more straightforward. I’ll get into the detail of the process in a future post.

At The First Years, our original business model was changed somewhat dramatically over the years as new competitors appeared, retailers changed their strategies, new technologies came along, or opportunities presented themselves. The result was that we kept what started as a family company in 1952 going for 52 years before a successful sale and created a brand which is now 42 years old and still in existence. It’s all about staying up with the times.   

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