Matters Column

Ongoing maintenance will keep your business running smoothly

July 26, 2013
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Maintenance is an underappreciated function in many businesses. We generally think of maintenance as applying to equipment and real estate, but the need goes far beyond that.

To me, maintenance means doing the things required to make a piece of equipment, a building, an employee, software, etc., work well when you need it.

Down times can be tremendously productive if they are used for maintenance. During the down time of winter, farmers prepare for spring planting. They work to assure that equipment that will be needed in the spring is ready to perform: Oil is changed, joints greased, blades sharpened, etc. The farmer who ignores these chores will often find himself unable to do a timely job of planting. Obviously, if the planting does not get done, the farm will soon be up for sale.

When I was growing up in Flint, the big down time was during change-over, when production at the plants was closed down while maintenance was done and tooling was set up for the new models. If I remember correctly (it was 60 years ago, after all), production people took a vacation during this time.

While maintenance is extremely important, it does not guarantee a trouble-free busy period.

I have a power washer that I have kept well maintained. It was working perfectly until its little accident. I was using it on a dock. While I was focused on the object I was cleaning, I did not notice the power washer was vibrating itself off the dock. It quit working as soon as it hit the water. I had to take it apart and drain the water, after which everything had to be redone, oiled, etc.

My point is that no amount of maintenance trumps stupidity.

When you apply the concept of maintenance to a business, it applies to almost everything an ongoing business does. Once a business has reached a certain maturity, the necessity of re-evaluating systems and processes is continually required.

If you own an established business, you must be aware there are start-up businesses that have their eye on your customers. If you become complacent and do not maintain your functions, the new competitors will take your customers.

So what needs maintenance in a business?

How about employees? Most business owners get an annual physical. It might be a good idea to annually make sure your employees have a healthy attitude. Bad employees are a threat to your business, much as high blood pressure is a threat to your physical well-being. Your annual physical tells you what you need to do to stay healthy. An annual meeting with each employee to evaluate what they need to do to be a valued member of the organization is critical.

How about software? Are you regularly doing updates? Do you have the best software for the functions you are using it for? Updates and being aware of developments in your industry are important. The person starting a new business or buying a business generally makes a concerted effort to buy the best software for the job, but if you have been in business for awhile, you may not have looked at new hardware and software for years. The start-up is out to take your customers. If it has superior tools, it may accomplish that goal. I always enjoyed showing potential new clients what we could do that their former firm could not — especially if the former firm was an established firm.

The value of equipment maintenance is easy to understand. But how about the maintenance of your brain? Do you keep it constantly updated and programmed with new knowledge? Your new competitor may have fresh ideas and the most up-to-date knowledge. The one thing you have that the start-up may not have is experience. Combine the old software and experience with updates and new methods, and your business should be unbeatable.

Too often, maintaining your office building is limited to changing furnace filters and a little painting and carpet cleaning. Your office forms the first impression of who you are. You need to maintain your image. New art work, carpeting and furniture may help convince a potential new customer that you are a person of taste. Some people feel that dressing up their office or their wardrobe is shallow, and their work will stand alone. I wanted to believe that, but if it were true, large businesses would not spend the money they do on polishing their image.

It has struck me at times how simple some of the most important things a business needs to do to succeed are. If you have been in business for awhile, draw up a list of functions that are important to your success. Check the oil, filters and lubrication just like you do on your car. Is everything up to date, clean and functioning properly?

If you do that on a repetitive basis, a breakdown becomes much less likely.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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