Best Practices


Do you work for a small-to-medium-size company? Ever wonder if you are missing any tricks that bigger companies, with more resources (both money and people), routinely utilize? Or maybe you work for a big company: Do you sometimes think about the heavy processes imposed by management that take time and effort but may fall short of delivering the intended value?

If these questions resonate with you, this series of columns will hopefully help your business with the application of some big company best practices that can be done efficiently, regardless of your company size, and that will add value rather than just take time. Well cover the following practices:

Mission/Vision/Strategy. Development of these can be powerful for your company, not only as a means to set the course for your company ship, but also as a way to unite your people behind a common purpose and a jointly owned set of goals and action steps. Does your company have these in place? Are they working for you?

Organization Structure and Leadership. Is the structure of your company fit for purpose? If you have a functional structure, do the functions have sufficient freedom to act within their purpose? Are you wasting time and energy at the functional interfaces? Do you have the right level of productive tension between functions, or do you have friction and disagreement? Do you have an appropriate span of control for your leaders, depending on their jobs? Do you have a pipeline of future leaders that will deliver what you need, when you need it?

Brand and Differenti­ation. Do you know why your customers buy from you versus your key competitors? Do the people in your sales and marketing organizations agree on this? How much effort do you put into sustaining the key advantages you have? How sustainable are these advantages for the longer term?

Risk Assessment. Have you taken inventory of those critical events which could take down your entire enterprise? Could some of these risks be reduced through actions that you could take over the next year or so?

In my many years working in the refining, lubricants and additives industries, not a year has gone by that I didnt struggle with the concept of whether we were doing too much or too little in the application of processes to our business. In the end I came to the conclusion that the key thing is to ensure you really hone in on the purpose of the process, and not get caught up in thinking that the process or practice is important by itself. You can be sure that if you have a long, hard-to-understand manual to run the process, or if you require extensive training to run it, then it probably isnt working the way you really want it to – and your people probably have lost the thread of why they are doing it in the first place.

Focus on the intended outcome of the process. For example, the outcome of mission/vision/strategy is to have something simple yet powerful that will guide your company for at least the next five years and that everyone can remember. The outcome of a good risk assessment and mitigation process is to understand the top risks that could take down your company, and to do something about them – not simply to catalogue them and move on. And the outcome of work on branding and differentiation should be that everyone in the company understands why customers buy from you rather than your competitors, and that you focus on sustaining (or creating) this competitive advantage.

Before we get into the specifics of each process, lets talk about the basics of why, when, who and how you might go about implementing anything new. The why is the most important: My belief is that these four processes are the key to your businesss longer-term success. Mission/vision/strategy set the course for your more detailed action plans, and ensure that the actions of your organization are coordinated, aligned and resourced. In fact, you might find that it is easier to kill some actions or projects that are less aligned or critical to the strategy – and this will free up resources that you sorely need.

Organization structure and leadership is all about the people who are critical to your success, and ensuring that the success will continue into the future. It also helps to ensure that you are focusing your limited resources in the right places and not wasting money or resources where they are not needed. Branding and differentiation will help you focus on the reason you are in business: to serve your customers. If you can focus on what really matters to your customers, they may be willing to pay you more for your products or services than your competitors.

Finally risk assessment and mitigation is important in just the way insurance is. You do not want to be in the position where something serious happens and only then do you recognize that you could have done something reasonable to prevent either its likelihood of happening or its impact.

You are probably thinking, We are full up with work in my organization, how are we going to do any of this? My advice: Dont tackle all of these practices at once, but prioritize which is the most important to you at this time. Also, these things dont need to take huge amounts of time if you do them right – but dont skimp on ensuring that a cross-section of your organization is involved. The dialogue that you have during the development of your brand or about your key risks may turn out to be rich and exciting. So please take the journey with me over these next months, and I hope this will add long-term value to your business.

Industry consultant Sara Lefcourt specializes in helping companies of any size to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years working in marketing, sales and procurement, first in the refining area for Exxon and then in the additives business at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. E-mail her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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Best Practices    Business    Management