Imagine Knowing…the possibilities are endless Strategies for organizational success


Berkshire Medical Reserve Corps and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission

My thanks to Corinne McKeown (BMRC) and Allison Egan (BRPC) for inviting me to speak at their event May 2nd. We discussed disaster preparedness, business resilience, and ways organizations can help support their communities after a major event. The event was held at the lovely Hotel on North in the Berkshires. (BTW, the food there is awesome!) When researching for my presentation, I was surprised to learn how tornado prone the town (Pittsfield, MA) was. Several audience members had experience with past tornado events and shared lessons learned such as spontaneous, untrained volunteers showing up. Participants were encouraged to pre-register and get training with the BMRC and/or related volunteer agencies so they could assist in case something happened. I encourage everyone to get prepared and be able to assist others if needed.

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Crisis Management and HR Professionals

My thanks again to Isis Latham of Primerica for inviting me to speak in February to the Brattleboro Area Human Resources Network (BAHRN) in Vermont.  Human Resources personnel have a lot of responsibilities before, during, and after workplace crises.  The size of the affected company will determine HR roles during an event of any magnitude however, HR is generally responsible for accounting for personnel.  The news media will be asking about injuries, fatalities, the missing, etc., and families will be calling to find out the status of their loved ones.  Have you identified who will be doing what during and after the crisis?  While the Communications/Media personnel may the ones assigned to interact with news and social media, the personnel information will need to come from HR.  HR employees will be depending on first responders,  medical personnel, and others to provide information to them as well.  If you have a small company, one person may have multiple roles and responsibilities.  What have you done to ensure everyone knows what to do in a crisis?

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Community Resilience

I was invited by Matt Snow to speak at the Rotary Club of Keene, NH on November 27th about community resilience.  It was interesting to do the research for this presentation - there is a lot of info out there.  My take is that we need to strengthen our communities because federal, state, and local government efforts will never be enough to help us fully recover.  We can use a STEEPL+A (adaptive) analysis to better understand the strong and weak aspects of our communities, and gauge its potential resilience capacity.

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A Veterans Day Tribute

Yesterday was my late father's birthday and today is Veterans Day; I am filled with memories.  Dad served in a number of wars during his service in the Army Air Corps then in the Air Force when it became a separate entity.  I recall at some point in my life arguing with him about wars and he became very sad because he had served proudly, feeling that it was the right thing to do.  I felt bad after that, as if I were telling him his experiences were meaningless or worthless.  While I still don't like wars, I honor his sacrifices and memory, along with the others who have served in events they may not all agree about.  My grandfather passed away at a young age after being gassed in WWI and my grandmother had to raise and support her children alone.  Additionally, I am reminded that my Mom packed up all of us kids and moved a number of times throughout Dad's career, most of the time without him being there to help.  So many others have served and are still serving, and families of all types support their loved ones in the military.  I salute them all on this day of remembrance, while knowing my story is not unique.

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A systems approach to viewing your business

How do you evaluate the current status of your organization?  If this is being done only in pieces, e.g., "we need to increase sales;" or "reduce expense x;" then perhaps a more systematic approach would be beneficial.   A systems approach lets you see how multiple components need to work together to the improve overall condition of the company.

For example, "we need to increase sales."  What are some steps you might take to get the bigger picture?

  1. What do the sales people say?  Are they happy?  Do they make an adequate income/benefits on their incentive plan?  Do they work too hard, or not hard enough?  Do they have ideas on improving the product/service, customer experience, or advertising methods?  Do their opinions and suggestions count?
  2. What is the market for your product/service like?  Is it a crowded field where you have to fight for each sale?  Is the product/service a dying one or on the leading edge?  What new ways can you develop your product/service to offer more customer quality and value?
  3. Are you dependent on one big customer or vendor? If so, what happens if they are gone?  How prepared are you for a disaster?  Where will the customers go if you are not operating?  What happens if employees can't work for some reason?
  4. How is employee morale?  Are employees generally happy working in your company, or do you have a high turnover and/or see bad attitudes?    What is the "company face" that your customers see?  Do you support, train, and educate your staff?
  5. What is your financial picture?  Is the organization stable and profitable, or on the edge of failure?  Do you have resources to grow and try new pathways?  Is financial stress affecting morale and productivity?

Review the entire organization to document a baseline for planning purposes.  Do your SWOT analysis for each part of your organization to look for problems.  It can take only one faulty part to throw a system off, and the one you think is the problem may not actually be the problem.  Imagine knowing.

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Do you have a high reliability organization (HRO)?

High reliability organizations (HROs) are organizations that cannot fail, or try hard not to fail, as the consequences could be disastrous.  Examples of HROs include nuclear power plants and chemical manufacturers.  However, any organization that wants to keep operating and serving customers can use HRO practices as well.  When organizations use just-in-time processes and reduce redundancies, they may make more profit, at least until a disruption of some type occurs.  Efficiency does not always also equal resilience.

A synopsis of the HRO principles (using Weick and Sutcliffe's 2001, 2007 2015 works) includes:

  1. Preoccupation with failure: looking for possible problems and examining near-misses for lessons learned
  2. Reluctance to simplify: determining the root cause of a problem instead of blaming symptoms or personnel
  3. Sensitivity to operations: sensing the subtle signals of something going wrong and making corrections before things escalate
  4. Commitment to resilience: making the organization adaptable and able to recover more quickly
  5. Deference to expertise: openly listening to ideas from involved personnel and subject matter experts rather than hearing only from the bosses.

Integrating HRO principles within your company may help improve the safety and morale of your employees while increasing the quality of your products or services.

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Focus on Employee Preparedness

Preparing your employees for an emergency is important for both for their safety and the continuity of your business.  Trained employees may also protect customers who happen to be at the site when something bad happens.  The OSHA 1910.38 federal standard lists basic requirements for an Emergency Action Plan; if you have 11 or more employees, the plan must be written and available to your personnel.  Sites such as and the American Red Cross have free tips, lists, brochures, and links for use in training your personnel.  The American Red Cross also has specific workplace programs to teach employees first aid and related skills.

Not all emergencies require an evacuation.  For example, do employees know what to do if there is a violent intruder or workplace violence?  The Department of Homeland Security has information on preparing your personnel and workplace.

September is National Preparedness Month - a good time to show employees how valuable they are!

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News and Trends

Checking relevant social media sites regularly and following a variety of sources provides insight about trends that affect the way you do business.  You may see something about a competitor's new customer, an updated product or unique service, or a vendor's employee layoffs.  Information like this helps you when planning and exploring growth options.  Though it may seem time-consuming to use social media, even a brief skimming of headlines can give pieces of information that add up to something meaningful. Reviewing printed matter, movies, videos, etc., of all kinds may stimulate your thought processes, allowing you to create something wonderful. Imagine that...

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SBA Small Business Disaster Assistance

Check out the SBA website for a good, free, online course on how to apply for small business disaster assistance if your business has been damaged.  There are numerous steps to go through, so being prepared in advance will help you qualify more quickly. Important preparations include photo-documenting your assets, reviewing insurance coverages, updating employee contact info, and keeping financials (including receivables and payables lists) up-to-date.  You may need to provide personal financial information and copies of personal/business tax returns.  Copies of these items, plus other vital information, should be kept off-site in case you cannot enter the business location or the records are destroyed.  Keep in mind that the SBA only provides loans, not grants, and the requirements can be strict.  You must be credit-worthy and may need to provide collateral as well.

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Owner Accounting Controls

What controls does your company have to help reduce the risk of loss?  Here are a few things to consider:

  1. If an employee is doing the books in-house, do you have a CPA review the ledgers monthly or quarterly for accuracy?  Do you review them frequently?
  2. Have all your employees had background checks?
  3. Do you randomly verify and cross-check receipts to inventory and invoices?
  4. Are there any overages or shortages in cash registers?
  5. Do all checks, purchase orders, requisitions, etc. require your signature?
  6. Do you control check, invoice, and related vital paper stock?
  7. Do you verify that every paycheck issued matches to an existing employee?

What other controls do you have in place?  It is a fine balance between controlling everything and over-complicating employees's responsibilities.  Each business is unique and controls may vary between organizations.

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Challenges of Running a Business

Who has time to reflect on all the needs of their business?  You are busy trying to do sales and marketing, networking, paying the bills, collecting money, worrying about taxes and governmental issues, and having a life outside of the office.  And that is just if you are a sole proprietor.  When adding employees, partners, and stockholders to the mix, many new levels of complexity arise.  Then there is the stock market, economic indicators, consumer confidence, vendor relationships, and more to deal with.

What is overlooked or not fully handled, and important for the health of your business?  What changes might help you have more time to focus on long-range planning and securing the future, as well as have more of a personal life?  In the sections below, are some ideas, and more issues to ponder.

Business owners and managers may want to look at outsourcing certain support aspects of their business, especially in areas where they are not technically competent.  For example, a person who is a wizard in sales and marketing may outsource the accounting work.  The peace of mind that comes from not having to deal with numbers and taxes, along with getting accurate financial statements, may be worth the monetary outlay.  Outsourcing also allows the owner or manager to focus on other, more productive work, which in turn can more than cover the cost for accounting services.

What about fully training your employees to carry their full share of the workload?  Many employees want to grow and get frustrated when not allowed to do their job, aren’t given the tools to do it, or do not get the training and support needed to do the job well.  In the accounting situation mentioned previously, perhaps an employee can learn to do the books, at least the basic day-to-day stuff, and then your CPA could verify the information, and do the more complex accounting and taxes.  What other tasks might an employee handle for you?  Are you paying them to play on the computer, or to be productive?  Do you hold them accountable for tasks they are responsible for?  And, do your employees have any clue about what your goals and ideas are?  Do you ask for their help in finding creative solutions to problems?

What training do you need to support and monitor your employees?  Controls are important as well.  If you have anyone else (employee or outsource agency) doing work for you, it is critical that you can understand, verify, and authorize the outcomes, e.g., do you understand financial statements and watch your bank accounts carefully for fraud?

Are you doing things that don't add value?  Do you have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish?  It is very easy to start working on two or three different seemingly compatible venues that end up costing you enormously in terms of time, money, and energy.  Focusing on what you do best will help you stay on track.   If there are multiple areas you are passionate about, be creative in finding ways to combine them into a whole new niche.

Is your product range too narrow?  For example, if you are selling a software product, what happens when the competition grows and the market becomes saturated with similar products?  What happens when the customers cannot afford to constantly upgrade?  What happens when your vendor goes out of business or their product is discontinued?  Do you have enough product diversity to cover the rough spots?  Is your product range too broad?  Do you have inventory everywhere and have trouble tracking it?  Are your dollars tied up in unsold goods?  Does product “disappear” between physical counts?  Is it all highly perishable and needs constant replacement?  What happens if the power goes out for a few days?

Services can also be too narrowly defined.  What if no one wants your service?  How can you adjust your service to meet the customer’s perceived needs?  Do you try to do too many services, and end up being mediocre at all of them?

Do you have plans in place in the event there is a major disruption such as a fire, earthquake, or criminal act in the workplace?  Do your employees know how to evacuate the building?  Are your data and assets protected?  What is your insurance coverage?  What choices can you make now to save you grief in the future?

Your health and personal growth are critical to your company.  Do you take time off periodically to rest and reflect?  Are you getting professional coaching and business and leadership training?  Do you spend enough time with your family?  If your business cannot do without you for even a brief period, why are you so indispensable?  Is this your vision of what running a business is all about?  How do you get back to that exciting place of having an idea and wanting to start a business?  Imagine knowing ways to help find that place again.

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