SNAFU: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up
I just wrote about having time away from the business. There are various approaches to freeing up time, and I wanted to mention what I think is the wrong way and of course, what I think is the right way.
The wrong way is streamlining. The book The 4-Hour Work Week sounds an awful lot like how I described my extended vacations. It's a New York Times bestseller that my own book will certainly never live up to. I can take months at a time off with 3-4 hours a week of actual work, but it has nothing to do with streamlining. I tried streamlining after reading this book and it was a short lived disaster. This book is about creating a turn key business, a machine really, that shaves off all the hard edges so you can spend as little time as possible running your business. I've mentioned it before, but this is not a hobby game store road map for more time. We thrive on exceptions and hard edges.
There is a lot to learn from business process books about creating processes and procedures, but in general, more and better customer service, more and better options, are the answer, rather than streamlining and offering less. I think doing one thing well is the key, but offering everything possible within that one thing with stellar service is why customers choose you. It's your Unique Value Proposition. Once a framework of processes and procedures was in place, I then empowered managers to create their own policies and procedures, sometimes with a few tweaks from me. It requires they understand the philosophy of the company. Overall though, it's not unusual for me to stumble on a new policy or procedure in my own business that I've never heard of. That's exactly what I want.
Policies and procedures to me are about how we can regularly hit high performance goals doing our one thing. If I can't do something repeatedly with high levels of success, I don't want to do it at all. For example, people ask me occasionally to ship them a game. We don't ship. If I made an exception, we would be in new territory and we would most certainly screw it up. If I'm going to ship, I'm going to ship a lot and I'm going to do it right, with a plan. Policies and procedures created by staff are often ones I might have shaved off, 4-Hour Work Week style, but their desire to serve the customer has lead them to create new systems to make customers happy.
What you won't find in a 4-Hour Work Week scenario is the huge amount of variability and passion required to run a store like this. It's complete, but bounded, chaos. A primary goal for us is to create a wide range of possibilities with policies and procedures addressing each, along with boundaries that limit customer demands. There is always that guy (or girl), who wants it one way, but it's the other. That's unfortunate for them.
We saw this with our recent ding & dent sale, amazing deals with long lines. There was the person who complained bitterly about waiting outside, even though we had little control or ability to let hundreds of people in early. There was the customer who wanted an even larger discount because the box was damaged! People will always want more and ironically, the closer you get to free, the more of your time people will consume. Post a photo of free stuff on a table to your Facebook page and watch your time evaporate as you answer endless questions.
There's a Zen saying, "If you want to control your cow, give it a wide pasture." This is a reference to your mind. If you want to control chaos, give it wide boundaries. Let chaos roam about and eventually it will get tired and take a nap. Some employees will not like this, as the chaos is hard to wrap their head around. It's why it takes six weeks for new employees to gain basic competence. Some customers will attempt to game the system or call out inconsistencies in the chaos. That's all part of roaming the pasture. Bounded chaos is the strategy.
With our wide boundaries, we can have strong customer service ... with hard limits. It's a chaotic environment with many variables, but employees are empowered to make important decisions, with leadership being fairly flat so most everyone is empowered. Leadership has to back employees for this to work, so rather than the customer is always right, the philosophy is employees first. It's common with some big businesses like the Virgin company. Am I the best boss? Heck no, but I'll always back an employee if they're following policies and delivering great service.
Do I fire customers? Yes, but very, very rarely. We have half a dozen permanently banned individuals in year 15: the double dealer, the white supremacist, the homophobe, the serial shoplifter; you get the picture. I recently fielded the question, "Where in your book does it say I should go fuck myself?" Grab me a pen, my friend. There's always room for another chapter.
This all works because I have really, really good staff, especially managers. I support them and let them run with the vision. All the credit goes to them.