Break it Down

In 1994, I took my first job as a burger-flipper at Wendy’s. (Actually, they started me on fries — I had to work my way up to burger flipper). I was fortunate in a number of ways to have the opportunity to learn a handful of things from that job: most especially, the keys to scaling a business. Wendy’s, like most fast-food restaurants, borrows from the same model that McDonald’s uses. As far as I can tell, their success can be attributed to one factor: they break it down

In the years since, I have worked with businesses of various types and sizes. I’ve worked for a telecom manufacturer, a manufacturer of high-speed newspaper inserting equipment, a chemical company, a local copier & fax repair company, a specialty retail store, an online retailer, a law firm, several marketing agencies and over 70 freelance clients. I noticed one key difference between the businesses that succeeded and those that struggled. The successful ones broke it down; the others did not.


What exactly does it mean to “break it down,” and why does it matter?

Break down the steps.

If I could say only one thing about the difference between businesses that grow and businesses that die, it’s that I believe it all comes down to discipline. Fast food franchises have long since known the importance of doing things consistently the same way. They create a training manual for every position. They design their processes to withstand high turnover. They create systems that don’t require rare combinations of skills. They operate on the assumption that anyone can learn the business who is willing to put in the work. As a result, they are scalable. Their businesses are robust. Their goals are not thrown off track every time a key employee quits or develops a health problem. The quality of their product is not at the mercy of an employee’s mood that day. The cost of training new team members is manageable and predictable.
The small business owners I meet who never get ahead are invariably the ones who are not willing to break down the steps. They make every imaginable excuse.


Here are just a few:
  • “We don’t have time for that.”
  • “It’s not that complicated; why can’t everyone just figure it out?”
  • “We just need to focus on getting the work done.”
  • “Our business is really an art; the steps can’t be defined.” (Yes, I’ve actually had people tell me this with a straight face.)
  • Or, the most popular: “We’ll get around to that very soon.” (Of course, it never happens.)

Break down the numbers.

It amazes me how many businesses don’t know their numbers, or make any real effort to track them. For instance, how many prospects are in the pipeline? How many sales were closed this week? What does it cost to acquire a customer? How many projects were delivered? What is the cost of delivery? What is the business overhead, and is it in line with acceptable benchmarks? When I see a struggling small business, they invariably have no system for tracking any of this (or a very poor system at best). Usually, they bury their hands in the sand and willfully ignore the mathematical reality of their business. I have come to believe that some people instinctively know that if they looked at the numbers for what they really are, they would not at all like what they see. Successful businesses, on the other hand, watch their numbers like a hawk. They know the moment something is off, because numbers don’t lie.

Break down the promises.

What, exactly, should your customers expect from a company? Successful companies take this question very seriously, and they define their promises and guarantees with specific language. FedEx is famous for its tagline: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” They also define what they expect of their employees as well as what their employees can expect of them. They put their promises in writing and make themselves accountable for living up to them. Unsuccessful companies, on the other hand, tend not to make specific promises or put any thought into setting clear expectations. They only put promises in writing when forced to do so.
To be clear: not all struggling businesses are dishonest. Many have good intentions, but have not developed the discipline of critical thinking. For this reason, business owners who think of themselves as honest often leave people disappointed in them and never understand why. They don’t tell people what to expect, and it creates a continual mismatch of expectations. This leads to resentment and can cause all manner of problems, most commonly high employee turnover and high customer churn.

Break down the mission.

Successful businesses are in business to make money like everyone else, but they are inspired to do more than make money. For instance, Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay cosmetics, set out to create opportunities for women to be financially successful. I personally have a mission to help introverts build their dreams without pretending to be extraverted. Struggling businesses may pay lip service to higher ideals, but you can see what people are committed to by watching how they spend their time and their money. The owners of successful businesses are the ones that continue to put in longer hours than anyone else, even after the business is making money. The owners of struggling businesses are the ones that back off the gas pedal as soon as they’re financially comfortable. You can usually observe a roller-coaster effect happening at these businesses. When times are good, everyone slacks off. When times are bad, everyone buckles down temporarily, just long enough to get above water.

Break down the routines.

Successful businesses decide what they will do every day, every week, every month, every quarter and every year — no excuses accepted. They write it down, they execute it, they measure it and they keep tweaking it until they get it right.

Break down the roles.

Successful businesses invest in their teams. They create opportunities for people to develop in their careers. They define clear role definitions and hold people accountable for accomplishing specific things. Struggling companies do the opposite. They hire people reactively, often when they are too busy. They don’t put much thought into what they are hiring for, and they often give no thought to career development. Sometimes, small businesses accept as a given that good employees will eventually leave, so they don’t bother trying to retain them. Other times, they just don’t think about it at all. I’m amazed at how often I see small businesses hire people who are a poor fit, work them as hard and pay them as little as they can get away with, then act genuinely surprised or personally offended when an employee quits.


Breaking it down is not easy. It takes a lot of work and a lot of trial and error. It may mean giving up a few afternoons at the golf course. But it is the price of sustainable growth and lasting success. If you want to build a business that endures for the long haul, this single principle is the key.


If you have tried to “break it down” in your business and have struggled to make it all work, we would welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with you about how our team can accelerate the process. Give us a call at (919) 723-7916 today, or click here to book a complimentary¬†phone consultation.

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