5 steps to "lift" your approach to process optimisation
I hadn't entered a powerlifting meet since July 2017, when I competed for Wales in the Four Nations. You probably don't know what powerlifting involves. Simply put, it's a competitive sport where the winner is the person who successfully lifts the most total weight across three barbell movements - the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift.
My last meet was just before we completed on the sale of Credo, and six weeks before the birth of my twins. I had deal fatigue, and I got hurt squatting 265kg. This Sunday, I finally got back on the platform. After so long out I didn't hit any PBs but stepping out in front of a noisy capacity crowd to test my limits again was an awesome feeling. The buzz of competing - of being an athlete again - came flooding back and I loved every minute of it.
I entered the meet a few months ago as a way to bring some discipline and focus into my training. With a new business and four young kids it was proving difficult to look after my personal health, so I needed this kick to make it a priority again - much like those of you who have entered a 10km, signed up for Tough Mudder, or committed to a weight loss challenge with a colleague. Training requires you to programme and execute a process that you believe will move you closer to your goal, and the commitment to a future event helps with the necessary discipline to adhere to the process.
In powerlifting, the cutting edge thinking in programming comes from Mike Tuchsherer, owner of Reactive Training Systems. His approach enables a lifter to predict, test, and refine the optimum combination of movements, weight, repetitions, training days, nutrition, sleep and outside stressors to move closer to your goal as fast as possible. The solution to this is highly individual. Some people need to lift close to their maximums 3-4x per week. Others need to lift light weights less frequently, or they get burnt out quickly. Mike uses all the available data to predict what will work best for an individual, tests the prediction to gather more data, and then refines the approach for the next iteration. Over time, this incremental approach leads to extraordinary outcomes - such as lifelong lifters hitting lifetime personal bests in their 50s. You are not too old to be stronger than you've ever been before.
Mike calls this Emerging Strategies, as the strategy emerges from the data you collect. Importantly, it is focused on optimising the process for improvement, not on pushing towards a pre-determined and often arbitrary target. The fundamentals of the approach are highly relevant to optimising business processes. I thought it would be interesting to draw them out, and for the first time make some clear links between maximising your bench press and optimising the efficiency of your consulting operations… "At last!", I hear you cry.
Step 1: Identify the metrics you want to improve
In powerlifting, this is clear. The goal of a meet is to successfully lift the highest total weight across the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift, in accordance with the rules of the meet. The goal of the training process is therefore to improve this total, typically by improving some or all of the individual lifts.
In a consulting business, the metrics for a specific process are often harder to pin down, but this step is nonetheless crucial. In your invoicing process, it might be invoice value (e.g. accurately capturing all rechargeable expenses), invoice timeliness (e.g. making sure you submit as soon as you can), and invoice accuracy (e.g. minimising the time sink of responding to invoice queries from your clients). For a probation process, it might be to improve candidate selection during recruitment, maximise employee experience of the process, and minimise termination costs if employees aren't going to work out.
Step 2: Predict the actions that you believe will most effectively deliver improvement
In powerlifting, this requires drawing on all the available data - your training log, experiences of other lifters, the latest research - to predict the right combination of training variables that you believe will yield the optimum rate of improvement. Crucially, this has to be a plan that can be consistently delivered in the short-term (i.e. you have the necessary time and resources to train and recover as needed). It must also be a plan sets you up for long-term sustainability. We are much more interested in building momentum over years than rapid short-term progress that leads to injury and burn out.
In a consulting business, predicting the right design for your process demands exactly the same mindset. You should consider all the available data - your personal experience, the experience of your team, lessons from similar businesses, and the latest thinking published by experts. It has to be something that can be consistently delivered in the short-term, and is sustainable over the long-term. This is particularly important if the process in question impacts your clients, and the commitments you're making to them.
Step 3: Test your prediction, and gather as much useful data as you can
In powerlifting, we call this running a training block. The idea is simple. You've designed a training week, and you simply repeat it each week until it stops working. This typically takes 3-8 weeks for most lifters - a metric that is surprisingly consistent for individuals - after which you see that your strength levels have peaked and may even start to decline. My "time to peak" is typically 4 weeks, so I know that I can test a block for 4 weeks and then see how much my lifts improved at the end of it. During the block, I obviously pay attention to my strength levels, but also to lots of additional data - how hard the sets are, my bodyweight, my subjective sensations of fatigue, how well I'm sleeping, my tolerance for my kids or work stresses, any signs of emerging joint pain etc. All this helps me to determine how effectively the process is working.
In a consulting business, the same mindset applies. Once you've determined, to the best of your available knowledge, a process you believe will work then it's time to test. Run it exactly as designed and monitor what happens. Gather all the data you can - the key metrics, but also how much time it's taking, feedback from clients or suppliers who are impacted, the stress levels of your team. Keep running it as long as your target metrics are improving. When your key metrics are no longer improving, or have started to go backwards, it's time to review the process and make some changes.
Step 4: Review, adjust, and repeat
Once a block has peaked, I review what worked and what didn't. Maybe I introduced a new deadlift variant that seems to be effective, but I noticed that my Monday squat session was leaving me too fatigued on Wednesday. I change 1-2 variables - any more brings too much complexity into the data - and run the new block to gather more information. The changes are often subtle, such as changing your grip width on the bench press, or introducing a pause into the movement.
In business operations, this same review process is critical. Consider all the data you've just gathered, and dig down deep to identify the underlying causes of any inefficiencies you can find. Find 1-2 adjustments you believe will improve the process. Maybe you can add a reminder notification in a different channel so you don't forget to pay a bill, or to build a Zapier automation to save 15 mins from a manual process. Implement those changes, and then give them time to have impact. Once the metrics stop improving again… well, you know what to do.
Step 5: Maintain a long-term perspective
This approach only works if you can be in it for the long-term. If I wanted to squat 300kg in the next two months I might be able to, but I'd have to gain so much bodyweight, sleep so much, and be so ineffective as a father, husband, and business owner that it would cause lasting damage. Worse than that, there'd be a high chance I'd get hurt and end up weaker than I started as well. I'd much rather consistently and predictably build my squat up over years, rather than take a high-risk approach that has a decent chance of leaving me worse off
With your business, a long-term perspective is also critical. The definition of long-term will vary depending on your specific circumstances and goals - the point is trying to fix too much too fast is likely to back fire. This can be difficult if there are issues that are causing significant pain, and especially if your processes are impacting your ability to delight clients. Judging how much to change, and how fast, can be difficult. If you can maintain a focus on incremental improvement over the long-term you will give yourself the best chance of continuing to improve those key metrics you identified in Step 1. In a year or two, you will wake up to find your business processes are unrecognisable from where you started, and your clients will be delighted by the improvement you've made.
One final parallel that is useful to consider. The most successful athletes in the world - and not just in powerlifting - rely on guidance from coaches with deep expertise, an objective eye, and the tools to gather and analyse the myriad data points that can be useful. In business, working with a mentor, coach, or other expert advisor can help short-cut these 5 steps and deliver more improvement, faster, than you can achieve by yourself.
If you have processes causing you pain, try this 5 step approach and see how quickly the improvements stack up. If you want to get stronger - enter a meet!