How to Choose Business Efficiency Projects

There’s no one right answer as to which business efficiency project you should tackle first in your organization, but considering the following criteria will surely bubble a project or two up to the top of your list for effective business change.

Mission critical

Inefficiencies that put the future existence of your company in peril need to be addressed first. If you can’t make payroll next month, all efforts need to be on finding new sources of revenue or ways to cut expenses immediately.

Some mission-critical projects are less obvious than having too little money in business checking. For example, an inefficiency may be so frustrating that a key employee (or entire team) is ready to quit over it. Lax record-keeping, lack of an office manager, or a failure to track and encourage training hours may leave your organization facing the loss of required certifications or stiff fines from regulatory compliance agencies. The impending closure of a current vendor needs to be addressed before your inventory depletes.

Low-hanging fruit

Some projects stand out as having short timeframes, big gains, and little risk. These are great places to start, because team members get to see relatively immediate results with a lower chance of experiencing failure their first time up to bat.

Be careful to judge a project’s simplicity by company standards and not simply your own gut feeling. For example, upgrading all the company computers sounds to many people like a low-hanging-fruit project. After all, you can go to the store, buy a new laptop, and be up and running (and excited about it) in a couple of hours.

However, upgrading computers across an entire team isn’t that simple. Downtime is involved in setting up multiple machines at once, plus you have to consider the virus software, tracking down software license numbers that no one bothered to write down (so there’s a three-week wait period to get new keys from the manufacturer), syncing browser bookmarks, transferring files, ensuring compatibility with existing systems and software titles, and of course training the less-familiar employees on the new operating system and potentially even how to use a somewhat different keyboard or mouse.

Whew. Unless you work at a computer company (and sometimes, even then), this is actually a huge project that requires careful planning.

As a loose guideline, low-hanging-fruit projects are those that someone on the team has successfully completed before (perhaps at another company).

Fast completion

When they’re properly planned, some projects have relatively few steps in quick succession. For example, hiring a new team member to address the inefficiency of a customer service team unhappy because they feel stretched too thin can be a straightforward process in companies that hire frequently. (Of course, if you don’t have a human resources department, this project may be much slower — so you wouldn’t categorize it as a “quick” one.)

Human Resources posts a standard job template to a set list of hiring resources, then vets the incoming applications according to established criteria, schedules interviews, and offers the best candidate the position.

Fast projects are often those with solutions your company has implemented before. This may be hiring the 27th customer support representative, or it may be adding an additional article to an established knowledgebase or holding your 172nd customer focus group.

Sometimes, the challenge is recognizing an inefficiency, and the solution and resulting execution of that solution are relatively simple, especially if you have recorded the changes and can use them now to your advantage.

Getting it over with

The basic premise of the book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy is that if you have to do something unpleasant — like eat a (presumably unseasoned) frog — then you should do it first and get it out of the way. You can apply this strategy to your list of projects by picking the one you and your team are least looking forward to tackling (but that still needs doing, eventually) and putting it front and center.

One project that is good to get out of the way earlier rather than later is any solution that involves firing employees. They’ll know it’s coming the entire time you keep putting it off, and few employees perform worse than those who know they’re out the door anyway. They are also likely to quit before you have the chance to fire them, changing the project milestone dates to meet their terms instead of your original plan.

Biggest savings

Cost savings potential is the stereotypical default driver of efficiency projects. And with good reason — unnecessary expenses are sheer waste, and as long as you’ve thoroughly vetted them to check for unexpected side effects, you should get rid of them.

If your organization is cash-strapped, savings is a natural metric by which to determine the project that’s next on your plate.

Loudest complaints

Perhaps a project won’t save the most amount of money and doesn’t involve any quality-improving new equipment for manufacturing, but the underlying inefficiency is such a pain in the butt that removing it would create an audible sigh of relief across an entire division or organization. Pick that one.

Momentum is an underappreciated asset. When you start out with cost-savings measures, even though they may be in the best interests of the company as a whole, most individual employees think, “Great. No raise for me this year,” and go through the motions to wrap up the project.

If you have an objective they’re excited about, however, that can change everything. Interspersing harder or boring efficiency-enhancing projects with ones that make a tangible positive impact on team members’ lives is a smart way to sustain the efficiency train.

Win over a grumpy employee

They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and although we may not like it, this is sometimes a fact of life. Countless business projects derailed by a single person who was determined to resist the change, constantly raising objections, making planning meetings drag on past their expected ends, spotlighting every tiny error, and generally making the team’s life unpleasant to the point that even the most enthused, engaged employees are now having second thoughts. The project’s objective sounded great, sure, but not if it means constantly putting up with Carol.

If you have a Carol in your office, you can’t just close your eyes and hope she goes away. You also cannot try to anticipate her every objection ahead of time — she will always find something. Instead, figure out which inefficiency is plaguing her life the most, and consider moving that to the top of the list.

It’s important that you don’t make any move that may make “Carol” feel her job is in jeopardy, or she will reinforce that wall she has up with steel rods.

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