Compound Improvements: 5 steps to strengthen your processes
6 min read

Compound Improvements: 5 steps to strengthen your processes

Compound Improvements: 5 steps to strengthen your processes
Deri 'in the hole' squatting

Yes - I'm going to draw a parallel between training for a powerlifting meet and optimising your business processes. Stick with me. There is a reason.

The crux is this: Careful observation and incremental changes compound over time to significant improvements

Chances are you don't know what powerlifting involves. Simply put, it's a competitive sport where the winner is the person who successfully lifts the most total weight across three barbell movements - the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift.

I hadn't entered a powerlifting meet since July 2017, when I competed for Wales in the Four Nations. That was just before we completed on the sale of Credo, and six weeks before the birth of my twins. Life was pretty full on. I had deal fatigue, and I got hurt squatting 265kg.

It took me until 2019 to get back on the platform. After so long out I didn't hit any PBs but stepping out in front of a noisy capacity crowd to test my limits again was an awesome feeling. The buzz of competing - of being an athlete again - came flooding back. I loved every minute of it.

I'd entered the meet a few months before as a way to bring some discipline and focus into my training. With a new business and four young kids it was proving difficult to look after my personal health, so I needed this kick to make it a priority again - much like those of you who have entered a 10km, signed up for Tough Mudder, or committed to a weight loss challenge.

Once you've entered something like that you need a plan to prepare. Naturally, you want to do well on the critical date, now looming large in your diary.

To do this well you need a plan. A set of actions that you believe will improve your performance from your current starting point. In sport this is typically called programming. For consulting firms I call this an Ops Plan. Crucially - it's a starting point, to get going, learn, and then optimise over time.

In powerlifting, the cutting edge thinking in programming comes from Mike Tuchsherer, owner of Reactive Training Systems. His approach enables a lifter to predict, test, and refine the optimum combination of movements, weight, repetitions, training days, nutrition, sleep and outside stressors to move closer to your goal as fast as possible. The solution to this is highly individual. Some people need to lift close to their maximums 3-4x per week. Others need to lift light weights less frequently, or they get burnt out quickly.

There is no one-size fits all solution. This pretty much goes for everything in life. It's the reason we use Minimum Viable Products and search for Product-Market Fit in a new business venture.

Mike uses all the available data to predict what will work best for an individual, tests the prediction to gather more data, and then refines the approach for the next iteration. Over time, this incremental approach leads to extraordinary outcomes - such as professional lifters hitting lifetime personal bests in their 50s. You are not too old to be stronger than you've ever been before.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty cool 💪

This approach is focused on optimising the process for improvement, not on pushing towards a pre-determined and often arbitrary target.

That bears repeating. The goal is to optimise the process.

That will get you to the best possible outcomes.

And you'll have a repeatable model, from observing what works and what doesn't.

There are 5 steps to this:

  1. Identify the metrics you want to improve
  2. Predict which actions will lead to improvement
  3. Test your prediction & gather useful data
  4. Review, adjust, and repeat
  5. Maintain a long-term perspective

Let's dive in.

Step 1: Identify the metrics you want to improve

In powerlifting, this is clear. The goal of a meet is to successfully lift the highest total weight across the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift, in accordance with the rules of the meet. The goal of the training process is therefore to improve this total, typically by improving some or all of the individual lifts.

In your business, the metrics for a specific process are often harder to pin down, but this step is nonetheless crucial. In your invoicing process, it might be invoice value (e.g. accurately capturing all rechargeable expenses), invoice timeliness (e.g. making sure you submit as soon as you can), and invoice accuracy (e.g. minimising the time sink of responding to invoice queries from your clients).

For recruitment it could be offer win rate, or application-to-offer days. In skill development, training programme completion rates, course NPS ratings, or performance ratings.

NB - this is about identifying the metrics to improve, not setting goals for those metrics. We are focusing on optimising the process that drives improvement.

Step 2: Predict which actions will lead to improvement

In powerlifting, this requires drawing on all the available data - your training log, experiences of other lifters, the latest research - to predict the right combination of training variables that you believe will yield the optimum rate of improvement.

In a consulting business, predicting the right design for your process demands exactly the same mindset. You should consider all the available data - your personal experience, the experience of your team, lessons from similar businesses, and the latest thinking published by experts.

With that, come up with a small number of actions that you want to test.

Crucially, the actions you identify must be things that can be consistently delivered in the short-term AND set you up for a long-term solution. This is particularly important if the process in question impacts your clients, and the commitments you're making to them. To grow your business you must keep your promises.

Step 3: Test your prediction & gather useful data

In powerlifting, we call this running a training block. The idea is simple. You've designed a training week, and you simply repeat it each week until it stops working. During a training block, I obviously pay attention to my strength levels, but also to lots of additional data - how hard the sets are, my bodyweight, my subjective sensations of fatigue, how well I'm sleeping, my tolerance for my kids or work stresses, any signs of emerging joint pain etc. All this helps me to determine how effectively the process is working.

In a consulting business, the same mindset applies. Once you've determined, to the best of your available knowledge, a process you believe will work then it's time to test. Run it exactly as designed and monitor what happens. Gather all the data you can - the key metrics, but also how much time it's taking, feedback from clients or suppliers who are impacted, the stress levels of your team. Keep running it as long as your target metrics are improving. When your key metrics are no longer improving, or have started to go backwards, it's time to review the process and make some changes for the next iteration.

Step 4: Review, adjust, and repeat

Once you're no longer seeing improvement, review what worked and what didn't. What have you learned? What is worthy of testing now?

Consider all the data you've just gathered, and dig down deep to identify the underlying causes of any inefficiencies you can find. Find 1-2 adjustments you believe will improve the process. Any more will cloud your data. You don't need to solve everything at once.

Maybe you can add a reminder notification in a different channel, or build a Zapier automation to save 15 mins from a manual process. Maybe build a simple no-code webapp. Implement those changes, and then give them time to have impact. Once the metrics stop improving again… well, you know what to do.

Step 5: Maintain a long-term perspective

This approach only works if you can be in it for the long-term. If I wanted to squat 300kg this year I might be able to, but I'd have to gain so much bodyweight, sleep so much, and be so ineffective as a father, husband, and business owner that it would cause lasting damage. Worse than that, there'd be a high chance I'd get hurt and end up weaker than I started as well. I'd much rather consistently and predictably build my squat up over years, rather than take a high-risk approach that has a decent chance of leaving me worse off.

With your business, a long-term perspective is also critical. The definition of long-term will vary depending on your specific circumstances and goals - the point is trying to fix too much too fast is likely to back fire. This can be difficult if there are issues that are causing significant pain, and especially if your processes are impacting your ability to delight clients.

Judging how much to change, and how fast, can be difficult.

If you can maintain a focus on incremental improvement over the long-term you will give yourself the best chance of continuing to improve those key metrics you identified in Step 1. In a year or two, you will wake up to find your business processes are unrecognisable from where you started, and your clients will be delighted by the improvement you've made.

One final parallel that is useful to consider. The most successful athletes in the world - and not just in powerlifting - rely on guidance from coaches with deep expertise, an objective eye, and the tools to gather and analyse the myriad data points that can be useful. In business, working with a mentor, coach, or other expert advisor can help short-cut these 5 steps and deliver more improvement, faster, than you can achieve by yourself.

If you have processes causing you pain, try this 5 step approach and see how quickly small improvements compound.

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