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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Small Orders and Zero-Hours Contracts: Symptoms of Uncertainty

One of the best pieces of anecdotal evidence for an accelerating commercial world comes from order sizes. In an uncertain world that is changing fast, companies don’t want to gamble on big orders, instead preferring smaller, more frequent deliveries from their suppliers.

This morning at the Insider ‘Made in Manchester’ event where I was speaking, two very successful but completely different manufacturing firms reported that their customers were asking for just this: faster turnaround times on smaller volumes.

Holding large amounts of stock has always been problematic for businesses. While it gives you — and perhaps your downstream customers — reassurance, it ties up capital and requires you to operate a larger warehouse yourself.

Practices like Just in Time (JIT) were designed to eliminate a lot of excess stock, freeing capital and reducing operating costs. But while they had the cash and the certainty, lots of companies continued to hold large amounts of product in their warehouses.

The alternative was more challenging: capital investment in the skills and systems to manage a leaner process. This in itself is risky: just look at how many large IT projects fail. Screw this up and you could have catastrophic customer service issues. So companies put off the investment, preferring the certainty of higher stock levels.

Until recently. Because while cash (debt) remains relatively cheap for those who can get it, certainty has been eliminated. Now companies are doing anything that they can to minimise the consequences of a misstep.

This manifests itself as smaller and more frequent orders — perhaps made possible by improved technology. But it also manifests as changes to employment practices — the increasing use of freelancers and the rise of the zero-hours contract.

If you’re sceptical about the idea of a faster-moving, more uncertain business environment, just speak to a manufacturer.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Urgent, Important, Existential

If you’ve spent any time in business you’ve probably had to consider how you juggle your to-do list. Eisenhower’s ‘Urgent/Important’ matrix is a popular and useful tool here: map everything to one of four boxes. Deal with the ‘urgent & important’ first (out of necessity), then the ‘important but not urgent’ (your real priorities). Delegate the ‘urgent but not important’ (if it needs doing at all) and say ‘no’ to everything else.

Simples, right?

Except that the matrix is missing a column: existential. And not only is the column missing from the matrix, its contents probably aren’t on your to-do list.

Existential threats to businesses are increasingly present but so fast-moving that they are not always very visible. Just like the perfect pass that I talked about in a previous post, you don’t see them unless you take time to look up.

The last thing you want is to be dealing with existential threats when they’re also in the ‘urgent’ row. By this time it’s probably too late. So it’s important to make time frequently to step back, look up and see. Right now I’d suggest an annual review should be the minimum frequency for this exercise. Six months is close to being mandatory. Three might be best practice.

It doesn’t have to be time-consuming: that’s why we created Intersections. And unlike the ‘important’ items on the to-do list, it doesn’t have to be you that does this. At least not alone.

Sometimes the best people to spot existential threats to your business are outside the organisation. If you have an accountant, solicitor, marketing agency, management consultant or business coach that you trust, point them to Intersections and ask them to run the exercise against your business. They’ll need some of your time and input. But what they come back with might surprise you.

This is the way to populate your ‘existential’ to-do list. If it works, put a diary date in for three months time to do it again.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Who Shows You The Future?

Great footballers are often described as having vision. The ability to look up and see the position of players at some point in the future and make a pass that allows them to capitalise on that position. Ball skills alone will rarely make you great if you always play with your head down.

In business it’s all too easy to run with your head down. It’s described in lots of ways. ‘Working in the business not on the business’ is a phrase you hear often. And we all do it. Because in business we don’t have a manager on the sidelines screaming at us or giving us the full ‘hairdryer treatment’ at half time, we lose track. Before we know it we’ve been running, head down, for years at a time.

There are people who can prompt us to look up though. And everyone in business has access to them. Coaches, mentors and management consultants, but also accountants, solicitors and marketing agencies. To follow the football analogy, people who are not in the game but stood on the sidelines, with the different perspective that brings. They’ve watched other teams, seen the stats, listened to the analysis and know what’s happening in other sports.

I have a mentor to help me look up every few months. It was through talking to him this week that I realised with greater clarity than before that the people I need to be passing to are these coaches and consultants. The tools we’ve produced have proven popular with forward-thinking business leaders. But the reality is that they spend most of their time with their heads down, not up. Their need to see the future and respond is intermittent, not constant.

Consultants though, of all varieties, spend all their time thinking about other people’s businesses. And what we’ve created is a great set of tools to help them do that. Tools that will give them something different to take to their clients and differentiate them from their competitors.

From January we’ll be launching a new membership model targeted primarily at this type of business or individual that gives them unlimited access to our tools for a single monthly fee. Between now and January we will be building the supporting materials to round out the products and make it easy to use them as a facilitator rather than inside your own business.

If you are a coach or consultant of any type — business, finance, legal, marketing, or management — and would like to be one of the first to access this service then drop me a line and we’ll keep you posted as it develops.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Electric Transport: The Jetsons Factor

Walking the promenade in Spain last week I noticed a lot of electric vehicles. Monocycles, Segways (and clones), and electric bikes. Renault Twizzys and small electric trucks. I realised that while all the attention has been on electric cars, its quite possible we may be missing a more immediate change to our travel behaviours.

In Spain most of the devices I saw were tourist attractions and city services rather than part of people’s daily travel plans. But it’s possible to see these devices becoming much more common in dense urban areas where people often have a compound commute.

Take Manchester, for example. If you live to the south of the city, the chances are your train comes in to Piccadilly station. Manchester has a pretty compact urban centre but from there to the major business district of Spinningfields is a 22 minute walk according to Google. That’s a 1.1 mile walk so Google is assuming an average walking speed of 3mph.*

A SoloWheel electric monocycle (or a good clone thereof) can hit about 10mph. It’s unlikely to be doing that for the whole journey, but 6mph seems a reasonable guess. Given that there’s no parking time needed (you just pick a monowheel up like a briefcase), this could halve your commute saving you 22 minutes per day, or almost two hours per week.

You might be a little doughier around the middle but that is valuable time. And wouldn’t it be an incredibly Jetsons-like vision of the future: lines of commuters speeding silently across the city on their clean little electric wheels?

Of course there are lots of dependencies that would have to be met to make this happen. Though the barriers are falling. While first generation monowheels and similar cost in the thousands, cheap Chinese clones are now coming in at just a few hundred. Cities have woken up to the need for more cycle lanes and pedestrianisation and while the progress is (very) slow, it’s clear there is pressure building. Electric devices could be truly mass market in time to take advantage.

Downsides? Well we all do too little exercise as it is. You’re more likely to do yourself an injury on a monowheel than walking, and ruin that nice suit. And frankly the world could do without the carbon cost of another few million consumer devices. But you never know: in five years our cities could look a lot like a Jetsons scene. Just without the flying.

*Did you know Google Maps takes terrain into account when calculating this? Amazing!

Tom Cheesewright