Planning Improvements – for startups?

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In my last blog post, I outlined three key stages we use to help businesses improve, and I covered the first area (Commercial Imperative – the “why do it?”):

This time around, we’ll look at “Planning Improvements” – how to change the way your people do what they do, and how to give them better tools. These are the old classics of “people, process and technology”.

  • Commercial Imperative – what’s the case for doing it – the “why”
  • Planning Improvements – the what, where, how of action/change
  • Taking Action – the who and when to make change happen

Hold on. You’ve only just started – how can you improve!?

Well, we believe you can, and should, make improvements every day.

For a start-up business, planning improvements are often not about improving existing tools and ways of working, but creating new ones that will take you through the start-up phase and into growth.

One maxim we use is “design for the business you want to be, not where you are now”, and this is equally true of start-ups.

Will you remain at one or two employees for some time, or is your plan to grow to 50 people within a year. These plans affect decisions on what is appropriate for you.


Making improvements, or creating new ways of doing things, involves people in a number of ways.

You need people to operate your business, or if it’s highly automated, to get it going in the first place, and deal with exceptions. People can help or hinder the processes of change or creation. In a similar way to looking at profitability or risk, get a sheet of paper, and list out all the things you can think of that the people involved (even if it’s just you) should, can and can’t do, strengths, weaknesses and so on.

What we’re looking to do is build an honest assessment of what we’re working with, so we can manage our “human capital” as well as we can, for both the business and the people. It’s vital to keep the right people motivated and bought in to making the future happen. That’s why we aim to be clear about what our people are good and and enjoy, and are not so good at, or dislike doing. We can then be more confident about what we can do, and what we will be best to buy in skills for.

Remember too, that one related aspect of “people” is “time”. Each person has a finite amount of time to work with, so take some time to think about (and write down) how you will organise time, what results the time should yield, and how you will track the effectiveness of the time used. We do a lot of work around practical time (and priority – see next blog post…) management when we start working with clients, so we know it makes a difference.


Process is broadly speaking “what you do, how you do it, when, to whom” in order to deliver your service or product to your customers.

Particularly for start-ups, the temptation (and often the need) is to “wing it” with the way you do things – it’s partly a learning phase after all, and I think that we should never lose the excitement of creating new things – products or processes.

So why is process important in the start-up phase?

I think that there are three main reasons – giving your customers reliable, consistent products or services, preparing for growth and securing the value of your business.

The important aspects of process in start-ups are to keep things simple, keep them accessible, and keep them fresh. Use one page summaries of processes. Publish them on your intranet, blu-tac them onto the walls, draw them on whiteboards. Debate them, challenge one another – could the way you do things be better? Could it be faster? Waste less? Do more for the same effort? Make customers happier? Look on process discipline as a way to incrementally do better for your customers. Big established businesses could learn from you! (But they won’t, they get stuck in institutional thinking, and that’s part of why start-ups can make such rapid market impacts…).

Look for where things are delayed, duplicated or waiting on decisions. Ask your customers where you are better and worse than your competitors. Ask your suppliers too. Ask staff to tell you what they spend most of their time on, and look for opportunities to improve.


Keep it appropriate.

It’s tempting to splash the seed-investment cash on iPads, MacBook Pros, stonking great HP servers, top-end agencies and service providers.

Sometimes that’s absolutely the right thing to do.

Sometimes though, having a pencil and paper and a phone is enough technology for now.

Generally, technology improvements are about a few key things:

  • Speed, efficiency and accuracy – make repetitive or complex tasks happen more quickly, with less input from expensive resources (like staff and sub-contractors), and fewer errors
  • “Findability” and clarity – get to the facts and decisions quickly, allow you to summarise, drill-into, expand, extrapolate and so on using your data sources, support searching to get the right information at your fingertips
  • Reducing time challenges – get stuff working 24*7 so your business is available and working, even when your people aren’t, keeping customers happy and wasting less precious time

Of course, there are lots of other things technology is good at, some of which might be key to your business (so add them to the list above!). However, if the purchase you are thinking of right now doesn’t improve at least one big aspect of your business, or put you ahead of your competitors, ask yourself, why are you really buying it?

“It’s how you use what you got…”

…to paraphrase many a song! Try to make an hour a week or similar to ask “could we do more with what we have?”

Take time to look at the hard and soft assets you have in your business – people and their knowledge/skills; the ways you do what you do; your technology and its capabilities.

How much more do they need to do?

How can they do more?

Can someone else help you get more out of them?

What do you need to invest in to get more, to fill gaps?

Who needs to take what action to make the improvements?

Next time, we’ll look at just this area – planning, prioritising and delivering results.

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  1. Pingback: Since 2012 is “the year of the startup”… » Critical Action Limited (Helping make the right things happen)

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