How many hats are you wearing right now? Stop everything and count ‘em up. I’ll count with you: CEO, marketing director, webmaster, head of social media engagement, SEO consultant, copy writer, bookkeeper, warehouse manager, director of shipping and fulfillment, customer service manager…and oh yeah, artist, maker, and creator!
That’s at least a dozen hats. How do you fit through doorways? More importantly, how do you get any of it done? If you’re reading this, you're managing to get it all (or most of it) done, and before we go any further I want to give you a big round of applause for that.
It. Is. HARD. When you actually list out every task you do for your business, it's pretty overwhelming.
All of these jobs are necessary for your business to keep humming along, attracting customers, and paying the bills, so just not doing some of them isn’t an option, at least not over the long term. But what about the overextended entrepreneur? How do you keep doing the work?
I’m going to direct you now to a solution that’s been used by businesses large and small to make big improvements to difficult tasks, a little bit at a time. By dividing changes into manageable chunks, and using an easy to remember process, you can get all the jobs in your handmade business under control.
Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning “change for the better”. In this context, it applies to a system developed in post-World War II Japanese industry meant to enable steady, continuous improvement in processes and tasks. Workers from the factory floor to the management suite were encouraged to always be looking for ways to improve the efficiency, quality, or speed of their tasks by making small changes.
In the context of a maker, you could apply this to the process of making your work, the way you plan and execute marketing campaigns, how you set up your physical display for markets—anything that is a task with more than one step.
To oversimplify things somewhat, Kaizen is made up of two central processes: PDCA and the 5 Whys.
PDCA is a process that lets you perform small scale tests of changes to your process and make sure you’ve got them exactly right before you roll them out. PDCA stands for Plan, Do, Check, Act.
Plan comes first, when you prepare your test: what task will you be evaluating? What is the variable (change in the task) that you are introducing? How will its effectiveness be measured?
Do is next: you carry out the task with the change applied, recording the data that will let you evaluate its effectiveness.
Check evaluates the results: how did the change affect the task? Did the change lead to an improvement?
Act can either by a positive action, as in applying the change to the task going forward. Or it can be a negative action: if the change didn’t improve anything or made things worse, you Act by finding out Why.
The 5 Whys
Let’s say the results of implementing the Plan didn’t go as expected. Maybe they didn’t make any difference, or things got worse. The 5 Whys system helps you figure out what happened and how to fix it. The 5 Whys process is simple: keep asking “Why?” until you get to the root cause of a problem. Typically that takes 5 “whys”. For example, let’s say a customer asks to return a product they received. The 5 Whys might go like this:
Why does the customer want to return the product?
Because the colors were not what she expected.
Why were the colors not what she expected?
Because the photo on the website didn’t accurately reproduce the colors.
Why didn’t the photo accurately reproduce the colors?
Because the photo was taken in the wrong type of lighting and not color-corrected.
Why was the photo was taken in the wrong type of lighting and not color-corrected?
Because there was not time to set up the proper lights and post-process the photo.
Why wasn’t there time to set up the proper lights and post-process the photo?
Because time for product photos is not built into the fabrication schedule.
In this case, the solution is to add time into the fabrication process for proper photographs to be taken of the finished product. How that is done is another question, but at least we now know what went wrong.
Putting Kaizen into Practice
You shouldn’t look at applying the Kaizen approach into your business as just one more thing on your to-do list. It will take practice at first to keep looking out for small improvements that can be made, but if you keep at it that process mindfulness will become second-nature, and you’ll feel like you are running your business again instead of the other way round.
Kaizen works best when it’s applied to incremental change. You can only measure one thing at a time, so you only change one thing at a time. No more spending an all-nighter mapping out a huge, multi-pronged plan for making your shipping more cost-effective and then never implementing it because it’s too big and intimidating. Instead, take it one little bite at a time. Plan, Do, Check, Act.
Where can PDCA and the 5 Whys help a small handmade business? Let’s look at Product Catalog SEO for example. Maybe you’ve been meaning to update your keywords for ages but never have time to hit them all at once. Perhaps you could make the job less intimidating if you decide that you’ll update the SEO for each product, one at a time, when it sells next. Test that out—does it work? Why or why not? Set a target to test one change a week, or a month, whatever is sustainable for your business, and tweak things until you’ve found a solution.
The tools you need to measure your results can be as simple as a stopwatch, or a spreadsheet. If you want to get fancier you can use a financial tracking tool like QuickBooks that integrates with your eCommerce platform, or a service like Google Optimize, HotJar, or 5 Second Test to evaluate changes to the layout of your web pages. And Google Analytics is indispensable when it comes to measuring site traffic, visitor behavior, and things like abandoned carts or customer conversion rates.
Now it’s time for you to go give it a try! I’d love to hear your experiences.
AHAS Supporting Business Member Jeff Daigle is the founder of Denver Business Design Consulting (dbdc to its friends). He has over 20 years of experience in designing, building, and testing web sites, brands, databases, desktop & web apps, and buildings, and has worked in industries including higher education, architecture firms, international software companies, and tech startups
You can find Jeff online at https://dbdc.us/ or on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter under the handle “dbdcllc”.