The word “hero” has positive connotations for most people. In business, though, heroes are a mixed blessing. When a business reaches a certain size, it needs to learn to rely less on heroes, and more on a systems-based approach—or else face getting stuck where it is.
What does the contrast have to do with logistics, warehousing, and fulfillment? For many small companies, the hero approach is the norm when it comes to logistics and fulfillment. One survey, the State of Small Business Report conducted by Wasp Barcode Technologies, found that 48% of small businesses do not track their inventory, or else use a manual process. It’s not too far of a leap to conclude that, in many of these cases, it is a single hero or a small hero team doing the manual entry, tasked with keeping track of everything going on.
While this might work for many small businesses, the fact remains: Those heroes themselves are keeping those businesses small.
The Downside of the Business Hero
In a business context, the term “hero” has come into use to refer to a talented person who, through a combination of knowledge, effort, and will, manages to make a department, operation, or project just work. These are the people that work late to get something right, have developed many processes personally, and seem to know all the answers.
But, as a company grows, having a resident “hero” can almost be a bad thing. Yes, heroes tend to be the knowledgeable “doers” in an organization, always managing to keep the ship afloat (so to speak). The ways in which they do so, however, do not scale with a business. The knowledge, energy, and enthusiasm of a hero actually begins to work to a company’s detriment.
This is because heroes tend to…
- Keep their knowledge “in their head.” Heroes know what they are doing. But they are so busy doing it, they rarely reflect on what they know or how to communicate it, let alone take the time to document it. When knowledge stays in one person’s head, others cannot benefit from it readily.
- Appropriate instead of delegate. Good leaders, no matter what their official titles or roles happen to be, delegate responsibility and then empower their teams to succeed. Heroes are too often tempted to do the opposite: Because they can do the job better, they tend to take tasks from people. While folks might appreciate the lighter burden, it too easily leads to hero burn-out.
- Resist change. When a hero has been doing things a certain way for a long time, those practices calcify into habits. These habits can include many shortcuts and workarounds that, although time-saving, also blind the hero to more fundamental and systemic changes. Thus, they resist attempts to improve “their” processes.
- Underappreciate scale. Because a hero feels he or she is doing the best job possible, they will undermine anything that might cause them to perform at less than peak performance. Rapid growth is one of these things. Many heroes would rather do an excellent job at a small scale than a good job at a much larger scale. Thus, they tend to “think small” and not appreciate the benefits that growth can bring. That attitude can lead to growing pains.
- Unintentionally foster dependence. If everyone knows that the hero can get the job done, they will come to rely on him or her to always come through. And while relying on your employees and teammates is a good thing, this kind of “hero dependence” can have downstream consequences. For example, others might not bother to learn the hero’s processes. Or the hero’s job might simply go undone if the hero is sick, on vacation, or otherwise absent.
Again, these are simply tendencies that business heroes have. Not all heroes will display all of these features. Indeed, the best heroes display almost none of them...because they understand that the best thing they can do for their business is to allow it to grow beyond them.
The Contrast: A Systems-Based Approach
So what is the alternative to getting a hero in place? It is to adopt a systems approach. In a systems approach, work is guaranteed not by one superstar individual, but by having the right procedures, technology, and documentation in place. For example:
- While a hero keeps the knowledge in his or her head, a systems approach values easy-to-understand documentation and regular training. Anyone can “jump in” and help get work done.
- While a hero tries to “do it all,” a systems approach distributes responsibility. Workers are brought on as needed or sent elsewhere when not, with seamless transitions in between.
- A systems approach takes a “whole operation” or “whole company” view. Its software, for example, implements elegant solutions to operational challenges, not workarounds.
- A systems approach uses automation, where possible, to simplify workflows and reduce error. The more this happens, the better the systems will scale with company growth.
- Heroes are human; they get sick, take vacation, or move on to other positions. When that happens, the company has to “start over,” having lost its institutional knowledge. Neither procedures nor software nor documentation are people, and so they do not stop or leave. Systems, then, are the epitome of continuity.
Admittedly, the systems-based approach can be a lot slower, especially when one factors in the time needed to implement new procedures and technology. But it is one of the few ways to ensure continuity of operations and the ability to scale.
The Rise and Fall of the Logistics Hero
Why the long essay on business heroes versus a systems approach? For many small companies, the hero approach is the norm when it comes to logistics and fulfillment. While those heroes are serving their companies well, they easily could be holding back those companies as well.
The solution, of course, is not to ditch the heroes, but to change the company culture and approach. If a company dedicates itself to bringing new systems on board and using them, people will naturally become less and less dependent on those heroes. The result can be liberating: Those heroes can now go on to do more interesting, innovative things, and the operation can run with continuity. Isn’t that a win-win?