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Does Your Small Family Business have a Meeting Rhythm?

For starters, what is a meeting rhythm and why is it vitally important for your company’s success?

A meeting rhythm essentially means you have key meetings in your company and that they are regularly and predictably held as scheduled. In fact, they are so regular and predictable that they almost turn into a rhythm, like a heartbeat.

For those meeting haters (which most of us are), I know this sounds like torture—even a waste of time!
However, I can promise you—even those of you that work in very small family businesses—that a committed schedule of correctly held meetings, if done right, can make massive improvements in your small business.

Now that we know what a meeting rhythm is, we can address why is it so vitally important. There are many reasons but some of the top ones are as follows:

1) Massive Improvement in Communication

I think the single biggest challenge in any business, small or large, is communication. I hear this so many times it is unbelievable.

Listen to your workers—what complaint do you hear from them most often? I suggest one of these phrases, “We need more communication;” “Nobody told me;” “I didn’t know;” “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing around here!”

I hear this kind of phrase, no matter where I go, repeated over-and-over again in one form or another.

The trouble with this feedback—even criticism at times—is that it is so easy to say and so hard to do.

One of the reasons communication fails us at times is because we do not have enough people in the game. Consider a football huddle (mini ten second meeting) if all the players on the field refused to come to the huddle?

What if the backfield and receivers came to the huddle but the offensive line refused?

It is easy to see how important that ten second huddle becomes. If only one person on the field doesn’t know his assignment, then the entire play could end up in disaster.

Meetings can get bogged down when people talk too long but that is not because the meeting is bad—it is because it is managed poorly.

Meetings are an essential tool that should be used to setup successful “plays” at work.

Some of these might be quick daily meetings (people often call these stand-up meetings or huddles). These can be five minute meetings where a few key items are coordinated and communicated.

Some of these might be weekly meetings. These might be a thirty-minute-type meeting or an hour-type meeting.

Some of these might be monthly meetings, quarterly meetings or yearly meetings—they can vary in size and shape but the rhythm becomes invaluable and, indeed, the heartbeat of the company.

2) Massive Improvement in Inter-company Shared Learning

Shared learning is an enormous business topic that gets top consulting dollars. Large corporations are constantly trying to figure out how to share learning across business units and business departments.

It is challenging to be sure. However, in small business this challenge can be largely addressed in meeting format alone.

So much of this learning is like inhaling tribal knowledge. It happens without us even being aware. But there are also many technical issues that can be transferred in these meetings.

One machining company that I advise uses a weekly meeting for floor leaders out in the shop. Each team leader comes to the meeting with technical data and notes on parts that are currently being manufactured in the shop.

This data comes from the machinists on the shop floor who make notes on the prints as they manufacture the various parts: machine setup steps, dies used, ideas that make the parts go faster and even pitfalls to avoid on the next run.

The floor leaders gather these notes as the week goes by and then come to the meeting with suggestions—they learn from each other. Even better, they are learning how to learn, if that makes sense.

Each time those parts go through the shop, they go a little better, profits improve and, of course, so does moral.

The company is communicating and learning.

Without these meetings small breakthroughs might be captured by one work center, but certainly not shared across all work centers. Upstream processes wouldn’t be changed either. All the little things (devil is in the details) that make something great would be missed.

3) Massive Improvement in Eliminating Wasted Time

Believe it or not, if your company does not have a meeting rhythm, you are still heavily involved in meetings—we call them sidebar, or one-on-one, meetings.

Sidebar meetings are those that happen when a fellow employee pokes his head in your office for one quick second. “Hey Rich, you got just a second, I need some help with an issue.” These sidebar meetings can be overwhelming and they happen to all of us.

Consider how many interruptions you have during a day trying to clarify, quantify, explain or solve issues.

These sidebar meetings are not planned, are not efficient and are often very disruptive, yet somehow we think that they are more efficient than a planned meeting with an agenda that happens as scheduled.

Here is the point—even if you are a proud meeting hater, I will argue that your day is full of them…they are just called something different.

Imagine the lack of efficiency in this very real story and see if you have ever been caught in the same trap:

Bill is the top salesman—very busy man—in his company. He has an important order that cannot be late. Two days before it is due, Bill calls the production foreman, Alan, to see if his job will be done on time. Alan, is missing a part that he was expecting to deliver a day ago. Alan tells Bill that he will get back with him after he talks to Mason, the purchasing person.

Alan calls Mason and Mason says that Bill was supposed to get him some specs and hasn’t. Alan calls Bill back to report that Mason says he is waiting on some specs for that part—you were supposed to call him and let him know.

Bill swears, “Damnit, I forgot.” Bill calls Mason, “Is there anyway we can get that part expedited, my customer will be very upset if we are late and I have another huge order in the wings with him.”

Mason calls the vendor and the vendor can do the part on rush order but wants to know if the material spec is critical (or if they could take a substitute because the substitute material is in stock…and pretty much does the same thing).

Mason calls Bill back to ask if substitute material will work. Bill isn’t sure so he calls Alan in the shop to see if it will work. Alan says it will work just fine so Bill calls Mason back and tells him the substitute material will work fine.

Mason calls the vendor back…substitute material is approved…part will be done tomorrow.

Mason calls Alan and lets him know that the part will be done tomorrow.

Alan calls Bill and lets him know that the part will be done tomorrow, but suggest that he call Luke, shipping and receiving manager, to make sure shipping is lined up because they have been really busy.

Bill calls Luke to make sure shipping is lined up but Luke tells Bill there is no way that they can ship these parts until the trailer is repaired and Alan was supposed to get that fixed the day before.

Bill calls Alan, “Hey, Luke says you were supposed to fix the neck on the trailer—have you had time to get that done yet?”

Alan swears, “Damnit, I forgot. I was going to have Justin do that but he is working on your hot order that we should have been working on last week. I will have to get somebody else to weld it up…if we have it done late tomorrow will that work.”

Bill calls Luke to see if the trailer is fixed late tomorrow will he have enough time to get the order loaded for the delivery the following day. Luke thinks he can pull it off so Bill calls Alan to make sure he can find another guy as Luke is confident he can make the delivery if the trailer gets fixed.

Bill calls Luke back to remind him that the packaging must be done with the labels showing on the outside of the boxes.

Bill goes to the company owner and complains about the lack of communication between departments and how much time he spends chasing down details to make sure they are done right.

Owner reminds Bill that they have a one-hour coordination meeting with all the departments every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:00 but Bill never comes because he is too busy.

Obviously, a meeting does not guarantee there are no problems but if all these department heads where available for coordination a couple of times a week, think about how much time might be saved with the tail-chasing story above.

I could list other considerable benefits, but I believe these three alone demonstrate how important a regular, dependable meeting rhythm can be to improve your small family business.

Meetings can be designed in all sizes, shapes, times and purposes—probably a good topic for another blog.

I recognize that they are a pain in the butt, never convenient and warrant complaints from those forced to attend.

The key is to outlast those negatives until the positives start to become evident, which I promise that they will.

In time, your company will be the enormous benefactor of such discipline. That is when people will outwardly complain about the meeting but inwardly be very grateful that you have the courage and discipline to make them happen.