Build the Crew Before You Build the Walls

When you're in the Expansion Zone, there's more to think about then construction

You're in the Expansion Zone when: Every possible inch of sales floor space is filled, and even the ceiling has hanging baskets of product. It is amazing that you can move in your back room, let alone process orders. New products are coming out that your customers would buy if you could stock them, yet your customer count is climbing.

In the Expansion Zone, you have thoughts of, "Wouldn't it be great if..." So you get the board's approval. You (and your consultants) find the perfect site. You review your numbers and the project. You draw the initial plans, and the bank is willing to give you a loan. Then you hire a general contractor, and the process begins.

But before you get completely caught up in the Expansion Zone--whether at your existing site or a new location--I recommend that you consider building your crew before you build your walls. Too often when I've worked on expansion projects a couple of weeks before opening or even just after opening, I hear the crew say, "I wish they would have shown me how to..." or, "This would have been easier if..."

Consider that "every spending decision is an investment decision." In this vein, the best investment is not merely in the construction materials but in the people who have helped the store to get here. They are going to be in a position to take the store to the next level.

Allen Seidner of Thought for Food Consulting put it this way: "Spending all your renovation dollars on equipment and installation is like throwing a weekend pilot into the seat of a passenger jet without providing instruction on how to operate. You end up with many of the leaders of these departments struggling more than necessary to scale and make functional their new department, while others are unable to lead their departments into anything smoother than a crash landing. It's always better to invest energy and funds to ensure a team is confident about operating in its new environment than to rush a project or beat a budget to the extent that staff are unduly anxious and disorganized." Areas that I often see neglected but that need attention: leadership, systems, training, accountability, and equipment.

Expansion requires leadership of the staff and the building of department leaders. The time when the Expansion Zone seems to be demanding nearly all of a manager's attention is the very period when the staff needs leadership most. The Expansion Zone also can lead to false hopes for a staff without leadership. Many will think that the move will solve all of their current store problems and answer all of their questions, without their even having to ask them.

With expansion there will be a cultural shift, and many will be uncomfortable with the changes even though these changes are inevitable and necessary. Strong leadership and clear communication can make this transition much easier.

How can your best people lead in a new environment when they don't know how?

Training your supervisors or prospective supervisors in the areas of delegation, interviewing, hiring and firing, job accountability, margin control, and financial accountability while they are still in the comfort of the familiar store environment will make the transition to the new store less stressful, and it is more likely to be successful.

The solid training essential to success can only happen with clear job descriptions and shift guidelines. Staffing plans will be needed to anticipate how jobs will change. Jobs that were once done by one person may now need others. The person who has done a job in a smaller environment may not be the best person for the same position in the new environment. This may result in bruised egos, and any ego massaging is best done well before the change.

More new people also translates into the need for new personnel systems and accountability. Store policies that worked with a ten-person crew aren't necessarily applicable to a crew of thirty. Clear policies and the accountability that goes along with them will be much easier started in the old store. Even things as simple as making sure people come to work on time or follow a dress code are better started early on.

Do you have regular meetings? Do they work? Do your supervisors even know how to use this time well, or is it just the hour they dread? Good communication skills learned at the top now will lead to better communication at the lower levels later.

Good time management also will be absolutely essential for your supervisors, who will feel pulled from every direction and can quickly jump into the fast lane to burnout with out it. Supervisors who have a staff of two or three now may soon have several evaluations due all at the same time, as new hire trial periods come due.

Many stores in the Expansion Zone have systems that are antiquated or non-existent, and staff can be resistant to accepting new ones. Often, believe it or not, they find comfort in the chaos. Without strong systems for ordering, stocking, receiving, prepping, and management of these activities, staff are led to think that they can keep using the same old methods, which will lead to inefficiency, frustration, and failure.

Small changes in routine can lead to big results. For example, any store can start using credit and receiving logs, or create an ordering system that teaches solid ordering practices that are based on fact not just perception. And is your communication system providing enough information to the staff, or could it be made easier?

See other articles from this issue: #110 January - February - 2004