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Agony Lance: Safety first, drain the brain and nerdvana

Let Lance Wiggs help with your tricky business problems.

 Safety first

We’re a growing manufacturing business with a range of products. NZTE has recommended us to the Lean and Better By Design programmes and we’re also working with an external consultancy on being ISO9001 compliant. How do we juggle all of this while we’re growing a business?
– Frazzled, Wellington

Business can be overwhelming. It’s easy to say ‘focus on the top priorities’ when you’re an outsider, but in reality the phone calls and emails never stop. While customers do come first we also need to work on making sure we have cash to make payroll, that the building isn’t leaking and that the website looks okay. Once you get big enough, then there is even more – such as ISO certifications and always improving the way you make things.

But there’s a right time to do those programmes and you need to be of a reasonable size. Make sure your company is doing the basics well, and that you’ve hired people who can take command of various parts of the business. A wise head or two, a few insiders and some young stars can form your leadership team. When everything is running smoothly you begin to drive the changes required to transform the business.

The precepts of Lean, safety culture and being design-led may seem quite different, but they are each rooted in the same fundamentals of identification and solving the biggest issues, and simplification. They all come with their own languages and methodologies, and can sometimes appear to be The One True Way. (Incidentally that’s the title of a very good book about Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder of scientific management.)

The plethora of programmes available can feel despairing, and they have potential to get in the way of each other, or even destroy the good work done before. The solution sounds easy; every firm needs to invent its own answer. Merge the programmes into your own distinctive way of doing business, and let that become part of your DNA. Your approach will change over time, but changes get harder and harder to do as you grow, so the effects will be lasting.

Drain the brain

I’m a returning Kiwi — nobody here seems to understand the experience that I gained overseas and the salaries here, well they’re a joke. Where are the decent jobs? Do I have to go to Australia?
– Unimpressed, Auckland

This is a tough situation many returning Kiwis face, including myself when I returned in 2003. However, it’s a story with two sides.

Think of the people who stay back in New Zealand and work hard at their local career. They understand the market and their industry deeply and will eventually know all the people in the game. The returning Kiwis land, strut around with their niche offshore experience and ridiculous salary expectations, and arrogantly expect a job. They don’t really know the industry here, expect that we don’t know how things are offshore, and have no respect for the people who have done it tough locally.

Both sides of the story are true.

In my own case I was certainly dismayed that my offshore experience and qualifications weren’t understood locally. I was very fortunate that the late Lloyd Morrison gave me some work for a few months. That consulting work wasn’t enough, and so I had to go offshore to pay the rent, returning only to work at a small online company (they did auctions). From there I’ve continued to have to find work both domestically and internationally.

I am a strange case – as my mother repeatedly tells everybody – as my work background is very diverse. It’s easier for people with definable professions, such as law, medicine or web development. But even with those professions, it still seems hard for locals to understand the relative value that offshore experience can add.

The answer is to take your time and get reacquainted with New Zealand before making arrogant assumptions and demands. When you return, swot up by doing the rounds at targeted local companies in your industry. Meet the key people for coffee, but don’t actually ask for a job. Seek information and news instead. After a while someone may make you an offer, or you’ll have your target companies lined up. Get ready for a lot more coffee, and don’t be afraid of waiting for the right position to appear. You will need to sharply adjust your salary expectations down, but by now you should realise that not only is living here pretty cheap, but the free extras (breathable air, green everywhere, safety, sea, sand) are priceless.

Achieving nerdvana

Mac or PC? Android, iPhone or Windows phone? Does it even matter?
– Aaron, Auckland

Yes, it does matter. You need a mix of these so you can understand your customers. Make sure you eat your own dog food by using your own website and applications on a number of these devices. You should know exactly what works and what doesn’t without having an irate blogger (ahem) telling you so.

Neither TradeMe’s iPhone app nor its mobile site offer you the means to verify your home address. Do the people at TradeMe not care? Maybe not — but the far more feasible scenario is that everyone on the mobile team simply uses their work computer, probably running on Windows, to perform that biennial task.

It’s also important to see the world as your customers do. Some large corporates and government departments probably think the internet is useless to them. Many of them have to experience the web through a Microsoft Internet Explorer lens, have email systems with tiny file attachment size limits, and are banned from using tools such as Dropbox.

It’s hard to develop an awesome iPhone app if the leadership team are all using Blackberrys. Once executives get iPhones, more money for that app will suddenly arrive as well. So give your executives iPhones and iPads, and wait for the mandate to come down from on high.

Make sure you have an iPad, a MacBook Air, and a Kindle in the mix. For the full view of the future add another Mac, a decent camera, Apple TV, large HDTV, and a 30-inch high-resolution monitor from youknowwho. Throw in some iPods for garnish and achieve nerdvana.

Got a question for Lance? Email idealogmag@gmail.com