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How was the Scale Model Checklist developed?

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The Goldman Sachs 10,000 small businesses are one of the top educational programs in the world to encourage growth in SME’s, helping over 2,000 businesses in the UK alone. They recently published their annual report: (https://www.goldmansachs.com/intelligence/pages/how-to-help-boost-the-uk-economy-with-a-boom-in-high-productivity-businesse.html), on the state of SME’s in the UK. What stands out is the productivity lag of UK companies, a measly annual rate of just 0.2%.

Why aren’t British SME’s improving productivity in line with our peers in other countries? At Scale Coach we’ve spent 6 years helping UK SME’s accelerate their growth. This question has sat at the heart of much of the work we do with these teams – how do achieve more with less?

The key to solving the puzzle within a business is, counterintuitively, to stop and look at the business. Like the parable of the man in the forest using a blunt saw to saw a log, he first needs to stop to sharpen the saw.

Practically speaking, in a business, it doesn’t mean downing tools of course, it means taking time out with the team to work on the business, to diagnose where things are going wrong, and set plans to improve them. It sounds so simple, but it’s surprising how few smaller businesses actually make this a habit!

At Scale we have a particular expert process we use to run these sessions, built around best practice tools we have developed. The key is to make the process itself efficient, to rapidly get to ‘the heart of the issue’ and deploy solutions to solve them, otherwise the habit won’t stick.

Central to this process is a tool we developed several years ago called, ‘The Scale Model Checklist’ (SMC). It allows a team to rapidly diagnose where the key bottleneck in their business is and, through The Scale Model book, link them to the exercise or tool they need to fix it.

It’s a great tool, much loved by the companies we work with, but where did the idea for the SMC come from? I had read Atul Gawande’s book ‘The Checklist Manifesto’, where he learns about checklists from airlines and applies it to medicine, improving success rates of surgery. I also like the theory of constraints, the idea that a complex system is only as fast as its slowest component.

Pulling these two ideas together, I thought about the application of checklists in the businesses we work with. We know that checklists are important in key operational processes, but what if there were a checklist for diagnosing the business itself, a simple one that could be used each quarter to identify and solve bottlenecks? That is how the idea of the SMC was born.

When running planning sessions with teams, we saw that key priorities for each quarter generally centred around two areas: achieving long-term strategic objectives and solving current bottlenecks. We saw that a checklist could be an excellent tool to accelerate diagnosis of these bottlenecks. That by taking the team through a list of common business issues, they could quickly agree on where the current core issues for resolution in the business lie.

The checklist itself was honed and optimised over the course of 12 months, working with our client teams. The items included and the questions asked were gradually refined, until we got it just right, whereupon it was quickly adopted by all the teams we work with and was an instant hit.

The SMC is easy for teams to use themselves. Teams share it in advance of a quarterly planning day for all the team members participating to review the list and pick the top 3 bottlenecks holding the business back from growth. The answers are then consolidated on a spreadsheet for the planning session.

What you typically find is that the answers cluster – different members of the team will see the same issues.

For example, one team we worked with for a number of years found a cluster around ‘being too busy’, ‘systems and processes’, and ‘cashflow’. Upon deeper dive into the issue, they realised that there were certain core processes in their finance function that were acting as a productivity drag on the whole team and causing their cashflow to run late. A team was put together to fix it, and within 6 months the problem was resolved.

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