Telling the truth about SME life today

How to build company culture

Like most companies, we started out with just a small handful of people. Back then everyone knew everything that was going on, and most of us could do most of the jobs. Then as numbers edged up to two and three hands, a few systems were introduced but everything was pretty informal. 

About that point, we doubled in size in under a year. It was fun, crazy and nearly ended in a complete meltdown. Initially, I listened to people who advised us that we had a lack of systems in place. They were right. We had nothing that would sustain manufacturing on a complex basis (coping with both standard and bespoke items on very tight deadlines). Result was chaos.

Most of the staff seemed very happy. The atmosphere was mad, informal and inspired. Looking back I can identify some members of the team that had no interest and even resented the idea of growth but on the whole, the sheer insanity of working life coupled with unlimited overtime appealed to people. Everyone worked incredible hours. In fairness, there was a lot of fun and a lot of laughter, too. But of course there was a catch. Because the business was so badly run, despite the growth spurt we made little of what potentially could have been substantial profits. 

We started to re-assess. All our systems were overhauled and structures put into place. But success did not follow as expected. Those left from the start resented the structures and blamed the growth. Those inspired by the manic growth and chaos and atmosphere resented the structures and systems because it restricted them. Staff were angry and resentful. Quality and productivity dropped like a stone despite the structures. Managers were frustrated and equally angry. Creative and innovative (if disruptive) people departed and we were left predominantly with the jobs worth mob. 

Early on in this downslide, I hired what became a succession of HR companies. Their advice was always heavy on performance management and listening to the grievances, light on looking at the company’s economic restrictions; their consultations more than normally resulted in more rather than less trouble. The ever increasing HR paperwork they introduced meant even more structures and restrictions (though I have to say I blame employment law for this). 

I can absolutely get the scenarios of minimal structure and stricture that has made such huge success stories in many of the creative industries and would have loved to run my business along these lines; but for a manufacturing company that is not practical. I equally get that in a primarily manufacturing town, the culture is often litigious, anti-establishment, highly unionised, and we need to jump through hoops to protect ourselves. I also get that other manufacturing companies who produce production line goods or indeed world success stories such as McDonalds can become world leaders on having systems that virtually take out the individual altogether. 

It took a few years and a bit of heartache and soul searching to sort all this out. Finally, I can see that my own company crosses two boundaries: that of the creative and that of manufacturing. We cannot be alone in being somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. We thus have to have feet in both camps simple, highly effective systems and the correct culture to encourage creative and ambitious people. In other words, it’s not all about pay but about enjoyment and pride at work, learning and personal development. Fun has to be thought of as a necessary part of the day so that people actually enjoy being at work.

It makes recruitment a challenge because we have to ask for above average people. But now we are succeeding again. It also makes life a pleasure and an efficient one to boot. This in turn gives me the courage to be able to make firm decisions on recruiting, on the basis that many people are not for us and we are not for them, and I have the confidence to think this is a good thing.

Jan Cavelle is founder of the Jan Cavelle Furniture Company.



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