For months now, serious troubles with the American auto industry have been front page news. This gives us reason to pause and ask, “What went wrong?” We know the industry’s troubles began in the 1970s, and while there was some revival, the return to health was short-lived. If asked to name one thing that explains that industry’s downfall, I’d say that the major players failed to become learning organizations. Your advisory firm is no doubt a small fraction of GM’s size, but the lessons remain applicable.
All companies and businesses need to become learning organizations. They need to study themselves ruthlessly and dedicate themselves to ongoing improvement. Let’s look at some ways to instill in your organization a culture of learning and improvement.
Blueprint and Review
Whether your organization consists of one person or thousands, the first step to becoming a learning organization is to carefully blueprint, or make templates of, your major business processes and activities. These include client acquisition, investment management, client communication, problem resolution, compliance, operations and all other essential or mission-critical areas. Far too many businesses don’t know how or where they get their clients, whether their business is growing and so on.
Once you’ve finished blueprinting, it’s essential to perform an after-action review each time you’ve made use of a template. So, after you take on a new client, perform a quarterly review, or complete any other major process, make it second nature to ask these key questions: What did we do right? What did we do wrong? What can we do better and how?
As this process of blueprinting and review becomes ingrained in your business culture, you’ll regularly gather extraordinarily valuable information. You’ll know, for example, where a new client came from, whether a thank you note was sent for any referral and if a welcome package was sent. If the new client did not receive the package, you’ll be able to figure out why not, where the breakdown was and how to fix things going forward.
Make sure you involve your staff thoroughly in this process. Of course, a review isn’t necessary every time a phone call is answered, but for major activities — mission-critical activities as you define them — your staff should undertake this process without your prompting. Additionally, in many cases you can leverage your financial institution partners, such as your broker-dealer, to gain baseline information about client demographics, industry association statistics, etc., which will help you make better after-action assessments and use industry benchmarks on profitably, staffing ratios and so on.
Studies show that most people do not leave their jobs because of inadequate compensation. The No. 1 reason people leave their jobs is that they don’t understand how what they do fits in or why it’s important. By committing to creating a learning organization, you’ve already embarked down the path to addressing this difficulty, because everyone involved will become part of building and improving the organization.
Put together a specific (and ideally individualized) learning and training program for each staff member. Robust cross-training is a perfect place to focus your learning efforts. To provide exceptional customer service, you have to have more than one person available who is trained at and can perform at least the basics of every business function. If someone is out sick or there’s a death in the family, there’s no excuse for having key strategic areas of your organization left in a lurch.
Importantly, as you begin to blueprint individual jobs for cross-training purposes, make sure your staff doesn’t get paranoid — “Oh my gosh, are they just taking down exactly what I do so they can get rid of me?” — by making it clear your goal isn’t to replace anyone, but rather to help everyone become more efficient, effective and fulfilled.
A Learning Calendar
Once you’ve identified areas for training and development, put together a specific, public, 12-month learning calendar. Having a group calendar, and truly welcoming everyone’s feedback, can help you avoid sending someone to a mediocre training opportunity when something better is coming down the line. You can make sure not too many people go to the same conference or kind of training, that you never have too many people out at once and that no one individual is getting too big a piece of the pie.