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It is called the Japanese miracle - the kaizen teian - and the concept successfully provides a way for employees to propose more efficient ways to work.
Today, variations of the "suggestion box" can also be found at many American companies. Yet despite the proven effectiveness of employee suggestion programs, it's estimated that only 7 percent of U.S. companies operate them. In many companies without programs, employees feel their suggestions fall into a black hole. Managers may think some ideas are mediocre or frivolous and the overall consensus is that creativity simply isn't encouraged. But before you dismiss ideas that come from your company's rank-and-file, consider this rule of thumb: While many of the thoughts generated will be worthless or already in place, as many as 50 percent of the ideas can save you money and help your operation become more efficient.
If you have a suggestion box, or want to set one up, the primary goal is to motivate employees to use it. Here are eight ways to make your program a success:
Publicize your program. Whether you use an actual box, an online version, or a combination, give your project a name. A catchy title like Operation Efficiency galvanizes attention. Announce the program and continue to publicize it by mentioning it on posters, in newsletters and through e-mails. Discuss the ideas at team meetings and make it clear that all suggestions will be considered.
Provide incentives. Acknowledge everyone who submits a suggestion. Offer rewards for the best suggestions. The reward doesn't have to be big but it should have some meaning. Some companies calculate a year's savings from a suggestion and pay the employee a percentage of that. Others give out special mugs or certificates. Some firms even offer consolation prizes.
Consult with employees. Treat employees with good ideas as consultants and discuss the pros and cons of the suggestion. Give them more background or information and challenge them to further develop the idea.
Think outside the box. An idea that may seem frivolous or weak at first glance may have some nugget of truth that can be the basis for change. Treat suggestions as brainstorming sessions and don't dismiss ideas until they've been looked at from every perspective.
Focus on big and small. Nearly every employee can come up with an idea about how to do the job better. Let your staff know the company is not asking them to redesign the entire production line. Instead, you are interested in suggestions - however small - that make money or improve quality. Make sure employees understand how the company earns a profit and how they contribute to the bottom line.
Teach creativity. Train your employees how to come up with ideas, express them in writing and put them into effect. You'll get better suggestions and you'll train your staff to be better problem-solvers and decision-makers.
Appoint an overseer. One person should run the project. Suggestions should be picked up daily and acknowledged within a week, regardless of their value. If evaluating an idea takes some time, tell the employee and give updates. Some companies publicly post all suggestions, along with comments on the progress. If a change can be made immediately, don't delay. Morale and productivity rise when employees know their ideas make a difference.
Keep it simple and fun. Don't bog your program down in paperwork. Develop a form that's simple but requires enough detail to make a decision. Employees prefer an open system they can work with.
Suggestions may generate pure net profit and the cost of making a change can produce quantum leaps in savings. Let's say you have 100 employees who come up with 100 ideas to save just one dollar a day. With 250 working days a year, that's a saving of $25,000. If your net profit margin is 5 percent, the savings are the equivalent to increasing your sales by $500,000. Can you think of a simpler way to make that kind of money?
Disasters never happen at a good time. But the timing is irrelevant. What counts is that your business can recover quickly with minimal long-term effects.
And that means having a disaster recovery program in place so that your company is well-positioned to respond to — and rebound from — a wide range of calamities. The issues your business may need to deal with range from persuading loyal employees to stay home if they are not needed and determining how to pay vendors if the payment system is down.
Asking "what if" is the first preparation step. Answering that question allows your company to work out what it would do if hit by, for instance, a natural disaster, a flu pandemic, a burst water pipe at headquarters, a power failure at the main warehouse, or other disaster.
Here's a list of the most critical concerns to consider:
Functions. Determine your company's vital functions and the staff members who would be needed immediately after a disaster. Establish the roles and responsibility of employees during the disaster and the order in which they will be called back to work. Name a backup for each critical employee. The essential staff members and their backups should have copies of the emergency plan and crucial phone numbers at their homes.
Data. Your business needs data to resume operations. Employees outside your IT department should understand where and how that data is backed up and stored. Duplicate records and keep backups off site in a storage facility or a bank vault. Depending on the size of your company, you may want to keep them at someone's home. Conduct a full inventory of the systems your business uses and set up a hierarchy of the order to restore them. Mission critical data, of course, has top priority.
Internet. Plan for the possibility that Internet access will be unavailable. This is particularly critical if your business has e-commerce operations. Consider having a duplicate website and e-mail software on a separate server in another part of the country. Web-based applications can be accessed from anywhere at any time with the proper passwords. In a worst-case scenario, your employees should be able to process orders and payments manually.
Checklists. Employees need checklists to guide them on how to respond. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, individuals found themselves in unsettled territory and were often unable to logically determine what to do. The extent of your company's checklists depends on the size and scope of the crisis. You can have different lists for various emergencies. A step by-step set of instructions goes a long way toward helping employees act in the best interests of each other and the company.
Phone tree. Have a list of verified, up-to-date contact numbers for all employees. Include numbers for office, home and cell, as well as personal e-mail addresses. Then, assign a phone tree with one person calling two people who each call two more and so on down the tree. This is a quick way to distribute information quickly, without placing the burden on one or two employees. Text messaging can also be effective. In large disasters, such as a hurricane or terrorist attack, text messages may be able to get through during power outages when landlines and mobile networks are overloaded.
Absenteeism. Flu pandemics are just one type of disaster that could cripple a business with absenteeism. Develop various scenarios that consider how your company can respond to different rates of employees not showing up for work. Determine which functions are necessary and which can either be understaffed or closed down.
A well-structured disaster recovery plan can bring order to chaos and allow your company to resume operations in a relatively short period. Also, if your company has business interruption insurance coverage, a robust disaster recovery program sends a clear message to your carrier that you are making a concerted effort to mitigate losses and therefore the value of the overall claim.
Many companies run into problems with customers or clients not paying their bills on time -- or not paying at all.
The best way to avoid uncollectible bills depends on several factors -- such as whether you sell products or services and the type of payment practices that are customary in your industry. For example, payment upon delivery may be more common in retail transactions but it is not common when providing services or in transactions between manufacturers and suppliers.
Despite the differences, there are some guidelines that can help most types of businesses. Your overall goal should be communication with your customers and clients. Specifically, here are some DOs and DON'Ts to consider.
Do explain to customers in detail what the prices, charges and fees are going to be. Even if the terms are in writing, it can be a good idea to also go over the details verbally so there are no surprises.
Do keep the proper books and records so you can provide information to customers. If your delinquent accounts wind up in court, proper documentation will be critical.
Do follow up quickly when a payment isn't received. Start with a cordial phone call or e-mail reminder and increase the pressure if payment still isn't received.
If a customer falls behind on payments, do call the party up immediately and attempt to work it out. Make sure the person calling is polite, firm and professional.
Do consider incentives for customers or clients to pay quickly. For example, you might offer a 2 percent discount for paying an invoice within 10 days instead of 30. Similarly, consider adding a reasonable late charge after the invoice is 30 days overdue.
If you can't collect or settle the matter on your own, do examine all the alternatives, such as turning to a collection agency, using your attorney to pursue debtors, and in the worst case scenario, litigation (including small claims court). Obviously, the amount of the debt will determine how much money you want to spend collecting what is owed.
Don't shy away from talking about prices and fees because you're afraid it will alienate customers or clients. The opposite is often true. Knowing the terms upfront makes customers and clients less likely to feel they're getting hit with hidden fees.
Don't summarize or send out brief explanations on invoices and expect the customer or client to know the details. Provide detailed records so that customers and clients know exactly what they were charged for.
Don't continue doing more work, if possible, for customers if they begin falling behind in payments. Inform them that you are stopping until their accounts become current. Keep in mind that the longer a debt remains delinquent, the less likely it will be collected.
Don't be rigid when it comes to collecting the full amount invoiced. You might have to negotiate and accept less if a customer has fallen on hard times.
Don't automatically assess an unreasonably high late payment fee. While it might be a good idea to charge interest or a late fee on payments received after an invoice date, you have to follow federal and state laws before you assess such fees. (Many states have Usury laws limiting the interest rates that can be charged.)
Don't assume that just because you spend time and money to collect a debt that the amount will eventually be collected. Even if you file a lawsuit and receive a judgment, the other party may file for bankruptcy, have no assets to pay you, or you may find it difficult to discover where the assets are. Recovery can be a long process.
If your business continues to experience a high number of delinquent accounts, take a look at your procedures to extend credit. You may need to change your contracts or conduct thorough credit checks -- especially with large customers.
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Believe it or not, corporate officials debated years ago whether women should be allowed to wear pants to the office. That may seem like a tame issue these days when you can walk into many a business setting and see employees in jeans and t-shirts.
Most employees want to fit in at work, but they also want to be comfortable during the one-third of their lives they spend on the job. So a dress code is essential at many companies and should reflect your industry, the part of the country you're located in, as well as your clientele.
Your company's policies should give employees specific guidance, but not be too restrictive. For example, you probably don't want to limit the type of ties your salesmen wear, unless they all wear ties with the corporate logo as part of a uniform. On the other hand, many companies ban T-shirts with sayings or logos on them because they may be considered offensive.
In general, dress codes and uniforms are legal. They should bear some relationship to the job, but employers have some latitude in setting policies. Include the specifics in your employee handbook. It will back you up in case of a disagreement and protect you legally. Spelling out your rules prevents misunderstandings and possible embarrassment when, say, one of your best customers comes in contact with an employee wearing a pair of ripped jeans.
With that in mind, here are five corporate fashion statements to consider when setting up or revising a dress code:
1. Mandatory. If you're in a service industry, your company may require all
employees to wear uniforms.
2. Tailored. When your employees deal with the public, you may want them to present a traditional professional image. In some instances, this may mean asking them to dress in "business attire" at all times. Or, they may be required to dress professionally only when they come in direct contact with customers.
3. Casual. When your employees aren't dealing with the public, you can often enhance productivity and employee satisfaction by letting them dress down. This doesn't necessarily mean ripped jeans - for example, you may require dress pants, shirts with collars and no shorts for men.
4. Laid-back. Computer programmers, mail room personnel and others who don't come into contact with the public might be allowed to wear just about anything, as long as the dress is appropriate. (You probably don't want anyone walking around in boxer shorts.)
5. Mix and match. Popular with technology companies, this look has spread to the
rest of the work world in the form of "Casual Friday." Even most
federal government agencies let employees dress down one day a week. The attire
can run the gamut, but again, you must set the standard of what's acceptable.
Warning: Your dress code must not discriminate against employees based on race, culture, religion, gender or age. By law you are generally required to accommodate religious dress. If your policy is weighted against one group, you must have a business justification for it. For example, a particular item may be required for safety reasons. Check with your legal counsel to ensure that you are following EEOC guidelines.
The primary goal of your dress code should be to reflect your company in a way you find appropriate while allowing your employees to be comfortable.
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There was once a time when a retiring doctor could easily sell a thriving practice to a hospital or practice management company. These days, many practice management firms are out of business and hospitals are more likely to be selling than buying.
So if you're heading for retirement and planning to put your practice up for sale, the choices may be limited to the following candidates:
A doctor with a few years of experience. Some physicians joined a group practice, expecting to become a partner. But partnership prices are generally steep -- proportional to potential income -- and these doctors may decide they can do better on their own.
Physicians emerging from residency. Some doctors want to start out with their own practices -- if the terms are right.
If you want to appeal to either of these potential buyers described above, you should hire a junior doctor and start planning to sell your practice two or three years in advance. Protect your interests with an employment contract, which should include:
1. A statement making it clear that the younger physician is expected to buy the practice.
2. A schedule for the takeover.
3. A formula for setting a purchase price, based on collections.
4. A clause giving either party the right to back out, if things don't work out.
An independent appraisal of your practice can help you get a fair price for the business and give potential buyers an idea of what they will pay. And remember, operating trends can make a difference:
· If your practice can show a recent increase in collections, you may get a larger percentage of those collections when you sell.
· On the other hand, if income has been dropping, you might get a smaller appraised value for your practice's goodwill.
The bottom line: It pays to increase collections before selling your practice. Work extra hours and see more patients. If you cut back just before you retire, as many physicians do, your sales price is likely to drop. The lower your net income and the fewer active patient charts you have to turn over, the less attractive your practice will be to potential buyers.
What's more, if you go into pre-retirement mode, your revenues will drop but your expenses won't fall as much.
One final tip: Don't forget aesthetics. A bit of sprucing up may enhance your practice's appeal. Splash on some new paint and lay new carpeting. Take home everything from the office that you don't actually use. The result is a clean, spacious look that buyers can picture themselves in.
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When you create a brand name, the relative strength of the words you choose directly affects how well you will be able to protect the goodwill your brand builds.
When The Home Depot was getting off the ground in 1979, its founders searched for just the right name. They rejected choices like MB's Warehouse, Homeplace and Bad Bernie's Buildall in favor of the name that is now synonymous with hardware.
How did they do it? An associate was driving past a restaurant made out of an old railroad car. She was looking for words that sounded good with "home" and The Home Depot was one of the choices that popped into her head.
Combining two words that are compatible with
your product or service is one way to come up with a trademark. But keep in mind
that not all trademarks can be protected under the law and registered with the
federal Patent and Trademark Office.
A mark is protectable if it is sufficiently distinctive from another trademark that identifies a similar product or service. It can be a word, a symbol or a picture. Ordinary names receive little, if any, protection under trademark law and can't be federally registered.
The Strongest Categories Include:
Fanciful - These words are made up
and have no purpose other than to identify a brand of goods or services.
Examples are Kodak film and Xerox copiers.
Arbitrary - These are real words, but used differently from their ordinary meaning. Examples are Apple computers, Dial soap and Mercury cars.
Suggestive - These are real words that suggest, but don't actually describe, qualities, characteristics or functions of the product or service. For example, Greyhound Bus lines suggests speed. These marks don't always receive the broad rights that fanciful or arbitrary marks enjoy but they are usually entitled to federal registration. And their owners may be able to exclude identical or similar marks in the same or related markets.
The Weakest Category Is:
Descriptive - These simply describe the qualities, characteristics, functions or geographic origin of goods or services. For example, The TV Repair Store or the Twin City Cleaning Supply Company. The problem with these trademarks is they can only be protected if they show a secondary meaning.
Some Words Can't be Protected:
Generic words - Stay away from words that are associated with goods or services but don't have any other identifying features. If you pick a name like "aspirin," for example, you receive no trademark protection.
Searching for the right name for your products and services is not a simple task. Get legal help to ensure the name is properly registered after a search of existing trademarks has been completed.
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With any luck, you might be able to walk away from the sale of your principal residence without paying any capital gains tax. The current law allows qualified married couples filing jointly to pull down a tax-free profit of up to $500,000 ($250,000 for single filers). But you could still owe tax on a home sale. That's because your "gain" for tax purposes is the difference between the sale price (less certain selling expenses) and your "basis" in the home. If your gain exceeds the home sale exemption limit, or if you owe capital gains tax due to the business use of your home, you could wind up with a tax bill.
Tip: Scour your records and files for home improvements and other outlays that can be used to increase your basis. It doesn't matter if the costs were incurred years ago. The more you can add to your basis, the less your taxable gain.
The list of home improvements includes new additions, installation of central air conditioning, fencing, decks, heating or plumbing systems and landscaping. But the cost of repairs, such as repainting the house or fixing roof shingles, can't be added to the basis. "Selling expenses" can also be subtracted. These include attorney's fees, title search and insurance, broker's commissions, survey and appraisal fees, and fees for recording deeds and mortgages.
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When you're bargaining over starting salaries or pay raises, be on sure footing or you might find yourself tumbling into a legal quagmire. If you succumb too easily to better-than-average negotiators, you may wind up running afoul of federal law. When salaries are skewed in favor of one group - say, white males - your company could be liable to charges of "disparate impact" or violations of the Equal Pay Act. Make sure each job opening matches a job description. Update out-of-date jobs or those that are no longer relevant. If the responsibilities and descriptions of jobs don't tally, both new and senior employees with widely varying skills could make a case to demand equal salaries. Once you review your descriptions and wages, run some statistics. Let's say you find your company is paying less to women and non-Caucasians. Compare their skills, experience and educational backgrounds with Caucasian males who hold the same jobs. If the skills and experience are roughly equal but the salaries aren't, you may be letting skilled negotiators get the better of you. Even if the salary gap is small, you may find that time and regular raises produce a broad range of salaries in the future, with some discriminating against certain groups. To help avoid this, take the following steps:
Limit negotiation. Offer a consistent base salary with few individualized perks or pay step-ups.
Document salary decisions. Legitimate reasons exist for some pay discrepancies, particularly when you offer more money to experienced people with critical skills. Make sure there's a paper trail explaining the company's rationale.
Tighten job descriptions. Be certain you can distinguish between the skills and experience that warrant more money. Review salaries periodically to spot trends toward the low or high end of your salary range. Make adjustments if you find wages are skewed against a protected group.
By taking these steps, you'll help ensure employees are being paid what they're worth and you'll avoid the expense and hassle of labor disputes.
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