The Management of Small Things

We are used to criticising inefficiencies in government, but in recent weeks I happen to have come across some serious service deficits from companies in the private sector. They range from some very small businesses failing to keep to commitments, to an extraordinary inability to change a delivery address on the part of the company that distributes this newspaper.

These are failures in the daily management of small things – like the electrician failing to respond to my messages and then when we finally did agree on a time, not arriving. So I now have a new electrician of the kind who values his job more highly than the previous one. It is very often the small things that the customer notices and values. Managers would do well to check from time to time with their staff whether these small things get done well.

The other side of successful management is dealing with the big things. These are often not seen by the customer but have major long term implications. These are decisions like failing to build power stations soon enough for Eskom to have the capacity to keep the lights on; or Naspers’ masterstroke of buying into Tencent before it became a world-beater. These are strategic decisions that have implications for years and can determine a company’s success or failure almost regardless of how well it manages the small things on a daily basis.

Behind these big decisions lies attention to what is happening in the world and a leadership mindset called agency – the belief that I have the right and the capacity to make things happen. Many of the big failures we have seen in both private and public sectors could be attributed to people in leadership positions who either do not know they should be looking into and preparing for the future or when the future arrives (as it always does, whether or not we are ready for it), failing to realise that it is their job to deal with it.

One of the great insights we gained when helping small companies cope with the pandemic was that the entrepreneurs we worked with were able to save their companies once they had the tools and the attitude to understand what was happening and take charge of their businesses. They were able to create scenarios with which to prepare for the future, and take the big decisions like changing the focus of the business to meet a new need or finding a new market for the products or services that lockdown interrupted.

But an agency mindset is also needed for the daily management of small things, like ordering supplies before they run out, checking with staff to ensure they are delivering what is needed on time, keeping in touch with customers, checking cash flow, paying bills, solving problems, and planning the day’s activities so that the most important tasks get done first.

This daily management of small things may not be as dramatic or impactful as the management of big things, but both are essential. Quality goods and services retain customers, while broken promises or shoddy work lose them. To succeed in business or in providing public services one needs obsessive attention to quality and reliability, driven by empathy for the customer and a belief that it is up to me to help them. This is what is so evidently missing in much of what we as customers and citizens encounter every day.

I wish every business owner, manager and worker could be helped to see the difference between excellent and shoddy work. Not only does excellence keep the business going and retain their livelihoods, but it also provides a satisfying sense of achievement and pride in work that leads to health and happiness.

Jonathan Cook is a counselling psychologist and chairman of the African Management Institute. He is also the host of AMI’s weekly Rise reflection series focused on supporting you in your business and your personal wellness.

This article was originally published on Business Live on 21st June 2021 and is republished with permission.

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