Embrace Your “Weakest” Link

An underperforming unit isn't always the source of blame. Sometimes that distinction is earned by other links having gained in strength—a sign of progress.

Most of us think of “weakest link” as a negative expression, but it isn’t necessarily. My first executive job taught me many lessons, one of which was that a weak link in an organization can be a sign of positive growth.

My responsibilities there covered a manufacturing arm structured around multi-year customer orders and a make-to-order shop that worked from order to order for many customers, some orders taking six days to produce, others six months. Just before my arrival, one of our top make-to-order customers decided to source its requirements elsewhere. The shop immediately suffered. Job overruns spiked, which made no sense since labor was underutilized, quality slipped and so did deliveries; work tended to fill the time. In the eyes of others, the shop was now the weakest link—but was it?

From my perspective, the shop was not the weakest link; the sales department got that award. There was virtually no pipeline of pending orders to fill the gap created by the customer that had exited. And so began our journey—the process of strengthening the weakest link. The sales department re-energized, developed new customer targets and paid far more attention to those already on board, soon creating an abundance of opportunities needing to be estimated and priced.

The department was now the strongest link, and engineering, responsible for estimating and pricing, became the weakest link in that it couldn’t keep up. Resources were added, and estimates, pricing and order input began to “hum” again. And—you guessed it—when the shop was at full throttle, if the backlog showed a major dip, the sales again became the weakest link.

Consider the opposite scenario: a client retained me on the premise that his sales department needed corrective action. I spent a week or two looking at the metrics and then sat down with the president to give him the bad news: The sales department was not the weakest link. In the prior three years, sales had grown an average of 5 percent but, over the same period, the company had lost about 10 percent of its customers. The customer losses were due to recurrent quality issues, and, as you might expect, the president knew that. So, manufacturing was the weakest link, and our focus turned to creating positive energy and positive results. The emerging cycle left targets of blame behind.

What’s the point? A weak link isn’t always a source of blame. The distinction could be earned by other links having gained in strength. If your organization is spiraling up through growth and continuous improvement, it is highly unlikely that each link in the chain will be of equal strength. Some functions will run ahead only to find themselves behind as others progress.

Carry the message: if the enterprise is spiraling up, let your team know that sometimes they’ll lead the pack and other times they’ll follow. You’re an extraordinary executive if you’re able to guide all functions at the same pace. If you’re spiraling down, e.g. 2008/9, the same is true but in reverse, namely the goal for all is to not replace others as the weakest link on the way down, but rather to reverse course and strengthen the enterprise’s links…one at a time.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.