In truth, the manufacturing company's service team was not acting much like a team. The factory manager was unhappy with customer service, the shipping manager was unhappy with the factory guys. Customer service had gripes with systems, the remote people were not responding, and everyone was mad at the the night shift.

Willingly enter into an exercise in profitability improvement?  That was about the last thing these folks wanted to do.

Because, on top of everything, they expected that the new CFO was going to be an overbearing bean-counter.

Instead, he asked a question that was so simple, it was almost silly: Where do we have leaks in our system?

The metaphor is the message

Not everyone on your team thinks in process terms. They may be heads-down workers thinking about their parochial concerns. A shipping manager might say, "When an order comes to me with no shipping information, it is a waste of time." 

Or they may think in tribal terms. "Why can't anyone in the office pick up the phone to answer the factory's question?"  

Sometimes it just gets personal: "I can't deal with Joe any more."

How do you take this jumble of team dysfunctions and have a productive meeting about productivity? About anything to do with improving the company, for that matter?

Well, you might want to use a pipe metaphor. The simple question you can ask is, where are there leaks in our system?

See, from a simple reporting perspective, leaks don't have prejudices. There are no tribes, teams or personalities. Just leaks--issues--that need finding and plugging.

Leaks soup

The pipe metaphor is especially useful in addressing persistent problems that don't fall into one department alone. Safety, for example. Or quality. These issues reside in the cracks of the organization, between departments.

And cracks make leaks.

This is worthy of a meeting of all concerned. Here's how you might use it:

As you convene, hold up a two foot long length of pipe, and ask where the quality leaks are in the system. This works especially well in repair oriented businesses, such as equipment dealerships, where decisions are made based on shared judgments with others in the company. Think for a moment of a diesel mechanic who needs to coordinate with the parts department, the general manager and the customer service rep. How can the repair process--visualized here by the length of pipe--spring errors, or leaks?  First, through a staff with inadequate mechanical skills, or maybe a parts department that doesn't have common parts for that equipment. 

Those are the obvious places to look. You handle those in the two foot length of pipe.

But what about if the customer has to wait an excessive amount of time? What if uncommon parts are on backorder? What if new problems were found in the vehicle?

Because customers are judging more than the job done at the end of a wrench.   They are experiencing the quality of your customer service and supply chain as well. Maybe even finance and advertising, where other problems can show up.

So you've got bigger coordination issues than you originally thought. And, from the discussion perspective, why not bring out a longer length of pipe to illustrate that?

CFO in the Know

Remember, I said this would be a great way to convene a team when you are the new CFO?

Here's where that starts to make sense:

A vote.

Or, more precisely, after you've identified the leaks in the company systems, ask the meeting participants to identify the biggest ones. Or the most urgent ones. The most dangerous ones.

Most importantly, the folks should indicate why they feel that way.

You'll have put yourself on the map for being a good listener. Because interdepartmental issues are notoriously hard to discuss in detail. And because few CFOs are known for asking the opinion of non-financial folks.

You'll also find yourself with uncommon insight, in the form of a list of issues facing the company, with feedback on why they are important. Then you can return to the office to  develop the data and business case for change.

A "business case" is simply a brief memo that points out how someone might make or save money in a company, all based on sampling, interviews or other initial analyses. Making a business case to make improvements in a company is what operations-oriented CFOs live for.  And a list of those topics that could save money, backed up by the knowledge of the people in the company, is worth gold.