A critical aspect of leading a business is clarity; clarity of direction, clarity of roles and responsibilities, and clarity of processes.  People need that.  They need to know exactly what is expected of them in their jobs, and what they must do and how.  Their training is derived from it.  Their performance and pay is linked to it.  The organizations ability to operate profitably is directly affected by it.  A lot of fundamental elements of organizational effectiveness are wrapped up in clarity.

I am sure you have all heard it said that specialization of tasks enables people to perform with high quality and efficiency.  Adam Smith characterized this as division of labor and wrote of the advantages of specialization for enhancing human productivity as early as 1776 in his classic book The Wealth of Nations.  Clarity and consistency are fundamental elements of that concept. 

…[leaders] often do not realize that they have the opportunity, in fact the responsibility, to draw the line as to what options they are willing to offer in their products and services, and in their processes to deliver them.

The less clarity and consistency an organization has, the more the variability that creeps in.  With that variability comes different ways of doing things from one situation to the next.  Those different ways of doing things cause quality problems and inefficiencies, errors and increased costs.  Much of what you learn in process improvement technologies, such as Lean Sigma and Kaizen, is all about reducing variability for that exact reason.

However, customers often want things their own way, and it is important to be flexible in providing your products or services in order to meet those special needs.  The McDonalds/Burger King war hinged on that exact concept.  Burger King waged the “Have It Your Way” campaign for years to distinguish themselves from McDonalds and earn market share.  It worked, but it was expensive for Burger King.   

However, Burger King used the Core Concept quite effectively for that time.  They identified a range of options within which customers could “have it their way”, but they limited those options.  For example, you could have your burgers with or without lettuce, cheese, pickles, etc., but you could not specify what type of lettuce, cheese, pickles or bun you wanted.  Most importantly, you could not have your burger made any other way than grilled.  You could not have it fried or sautéed with onions and mushrooms. You could not order your burger rare, medium or well-done.  Why not?  That degree of variability would have been too much for their operations to handle efficiently (to say nothing of the fact that it would have taken away their major differentiator).  That degree of variability brings with it increased operating costs.  With increased costs comes increased prices, and they would no longer have been able to compete with other fast food restaurants.  So, while Burger King was adding a degree of flexibility to their operations and their service offerings, they were protecting the core operations of their business by limiting the options that they were offering. 

Every operation has the same issue, and many leaders do not realize it.  Customers often feel that they have a special need that cannot be met any other way than the way they have in mind.  In an effort to meet the disparate needs of all their customers, leaders often lose sight of the core strengths of their business and their business model.  They try to be everything to everyone.  They do not realize that they have the opportunity, in fact the responsibility, to draw the line as to what options they are willing to offer in their products and services.

Remember, your customers are not the experts in YOUR BUSINESS and usually do not know all the options available to them for meeting their needs.  They do not understand the benefits of doing things the way you do them from a cost and quality standpoint.  That is the discussion that you must have with them.  That is the education they need.  

It is right to try to find every possible way of meeting your customer’s needs.  The key is determining where and how to draw that line.  As a leader you need to decide in which areas will you choose to be flexible, and in which areas will you not?  In which areas will flexibility enhance your product or service offerings, and in which areas will it not?  How much flexibility can you profitably manage within the context of the business model you have chosen and the market segment in which you are competing?  Those processes constitute your CORE. 

  • Those core processes are where you establish and maintain your position as an expert supplier or service provider.  
  • Those core processes are where you add the most value to the end results your customers are after. 
  • Those core processes are where you maintain the opportunity to ensure the profitability of your business.

To protect your CORE, you MUST demonstrate the technical and economic equivalence or superiority of your methods to what your customer is proposing.  

The obvious question becomes what if you cannot prove the technical superiority or economic advantage of your methods?  Then you may need to consider implementing their recommended changes on a broader scale.  Don’t be afraid of this outcome.  Don’t let your ego get in the way of listening to ideas that may help you improve your operations.  Remember, your customers are a great source of competitive information.  They are shopping your competition every day.  Take advantage of that. 

Just for the record, customers are not the only group that can affect your core processes and operations.  In addition, processes are not the only aspect of your business that can be affected by external influences.  Employee attitudes can be affected as well.  Regulations, media communications, competitive changes are examples of external influences that can affect processes and/or employee attitudes and your organization’s ability to perform correctly.  Therefore, a task that you have as a leader is to minimize the impact that all “external influences” have on the CORE of your business. 

Think about this.  What business are you in?  What is your expertise!  What are your core processes?  Identify the core elements of your business and build structures and processes to enable that core to operate as efficiently as possible.  Then, protect that core from external influences.  It will enable you to improve the quality of your services and the profitability of your operations.