Remember the television show The Weakest Link and that oh so diminishing line of dismissal…’you are the weakest link!’ I think most of us hear the phrase ‘weakest link’ as a negative expression; not necessarily! My first executive job taught me many lessons, some harder than others, but one of them was that a weak link in an organization can be a sign of positive growth and not necessarily a target of blame.
In that job my responsibilities included a manufacturing arm that was 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. Barely preceding my arrival, one of the top three long standing make-to-order customers decided to source its requirements elsewhere and 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, while its performance had slipped, 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, more importantly the process, of strengthening the weakest link and creating positive growth. The sales department re-energized, developed new customer targets and paid far more attention to those already on board and in a short time created 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 with the workload. Resources were added, estimates and pricing were provided to customers on a timely basis and order input increased dramatically. The shop began to ‘hum’ again, adding resources as needed and, you guessed it, when the shop was at full throttle, if the backlog showed a major dip, the sales department again became the weakest link.
Consider the opposite: a client retained me on the premise that the sales department was badly underperforming and needed corrective action…now! I spent a week or two looking at the metrics available 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% but, over the same period, the company had lost about 10% of its customers. Each year the sales department started at ‘90’ and still landed at ‘105.’ Not bad, not bad at all. 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!