Culture change can drive growth, profit gains

By Jim Kendall

This column originally appeared in the September 8, 2014 Daily Herald



Paul Vragel seems to approach business growth and change backwards – or, more politely, in a non-traditional way. Either way, his method of creating “an improvement culture to increase profits and growth” is intriguing and, more importantly, seems to work.

Vragel is president of 4aBetterBusiness Inc., an Evanston company with a strong focus on process management. For context, a discussion of his method should begin with a review of the actions most managements undertake when numbers are sagging and it’s time to retool the old approach:

* Developing what Vragel terms “a clear and adjustable strategy” almost always is the first step. That’s not Vragel’s first step, but it’s where most of us begin.

* Execution. Make certain that employees from top to bottom understand the plan and how to implement it.

* Have staff with needed capabilities.

* Generate enthusiasm for employee participation and contribution.

* Seek an improvement seeking culture, where “everybody is looking all the time (for change opportunities), understands where they are going as a company and understands the change required.”

The list of actions is fine; it’s the order Vragel likely would say is off.

Beginning by building a new plan is pretty typical, except at 4aBetterBusiness. “Don’t start there,” Vragel says. “You can get all bogged down. Start instead with the process: How things work at the company.

“What is the real process? How do things really work?”

If it’s time to rethink a business’ course, those are important questions. The answers come when Vragel “starts with those closest to the real work.” In a no-fault setting where employees are comfortable opening up, perhaps the essential requirement of the 4aBetterBusiness consulting structure, “People like to talk about what they do,” Vragel says.

“We look at every process, the whole organization.”

It’s easy to picture Vragel’s approach working on a plant floor with lots of machines and people, but, he maintains, the process approach “will work as well in the service sector – any business that is process intensive.”

Engineering firms tend to be process driven. So is the distribution sector. So are businesses that broker products. Think about bakeries and pizza makers, where process and routine seem important. In fact, as small business becomes more intensive, a process review begins to make sense.

Vragel likes to position his own process as “improvement seeking culture,” or the natural development within a company of a culture that, he says, leads to improvement:

* Individual employee actions that are repeated, which is why some businesses make especially good sense.

* Repeated actions that become habits, hopefully good ones. They’re the reason for those conversations about “how things really work.”

* Habits that become the expected behavior, the company way of doing things.

* Those behaviors then become part of a business culture that by its nature constantly seeks improvement.

The change can happen in 30-60 days, Vragel says.


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