Have you ever seen a sea lion on a dock or a rock? They’re not the speediest, most flexible, or most agile of creatures, are they? And although they have sharp teeth and tusks, they’re not about to outrun any serious predator. To put it delicately, it’s because they have a lot of – er – “Operational Sludge” around their mid-section. And you’ve got sludge in your business that’s keeping you from leveraging the speed, flexibility, and agility you need to thrive in a constantly changing competitive environment.

Maybe you have the equivalent of sharp teeth and big tusks – competitive advantages that make you indomitable. But if not, your organizational sludge makes you vulnerable to fast-moving predators – your competition, and even disruptive challengers that you haven’t even spotted yet. (Uber, Airbnb, anyone?)

How Do You Spot Operational Sludge?

It’s easier than you think, but it’s not where you’ll usually look. When I ask CEOs in my speaking engagements where the sludge is in their business, they usually say “manufacturing inefficiencies” or “discretionary costs”. Yes, there may be some sludge hiding in there, but you want to get at elimination of sludge to a degree that would put Jenny Craig to shame.

When I work with clients, I recommend the outrageous notion of going out and talking to their customers, not to sell, but to get inside their heads to understanding what they value… and what they don’t. Your customers know EXACTLY where the sludge is in your business because it’s causing them grief every time they do business with you! Ask, and ye shall receive far more insights than you ever may have wanted! But guess what, their insights will get that sludge out of there for good rather than putting a Band-Aid on a recurring problem.  The result being you’ll have the ability to tackle the more meaningful issues and you’ll see opportunities skyrocket giving you more managerial and executive time to focus on building muscle in your business rather than being slowed down by sludge.

Two client examples will help drive this home.

  • A $5M manufacturer had been losing money for 5 years… he uncovered a $1M of sludge in a band-aiding situation that had just grown and grown and grown over the years. It took him less than 6 Value Creation Conversations with customers to spot the unassailable truth of what was going on. When he fixed it for good, sales soared, costs were eliminated, and he returned to profitability for the first time in 5 years.
  • A $40M manufacturer was profitable… but had a $4M band-aiding problem that once again had ballooned slowly and insidiously over a matter of months. A simple diagnostic that identified which of the 5 areas of sludge were causing 80% of the unnecessary costs in business pinpointed the issue. When it was resolved for good (in less than a week, with almost no cost) that sludge melted off the P&L and revealed a much healthier bottom line.

As you and your senior team consider how to build Speed, Flexibility, and Adaptability into your organization, taking action might seem like a ‘nice to do’ and who’s got time for that? You do. Every day that your organization carries extra sludge or stiffens up with business bureaucracy as usual is a lost opportunity for profit and growth. As you know with personal fitness, the longer you let it go, the harder it is to get back in shape. Meanwhile, the business world is going at an ever-increasing pace that will eventually render you irrelevant.

It’s not about keeping up. It’s about leading the way with ease as you systematically build competitive advantage by having processes in place to accelerate your speed, flexibility, and agility. Two services I offer do just that: The PROFITU, with its focus on finding hidden customer value and a simple 5-step process to eliminate sludge, and the GROWTH GPS, with its focus on strategic thinking and planning for the future. If either or both of those would serve you well in your search to build an organization that can quickly and easily pivot in a fast-changing market, let’s have a chat about where you’re at and where you want to be. You can’t afford not to create those competencies and expect to stay in the game…

Where do you expect to uncover the most operational sludge in your business?


#1 Bestselling Author, International Speaker, and Accelerator Anne C. Graham is on a mission to help leaders and their teams double their profit per employee – or more – in less than one year, in less time per week than they’re spending on email per day. Her #1 Bestseller Profit in Plain Sight includes the 5-step proactive P.R.O.F.I+T Plan to do it.  Connect with Anne on LinkedIn