Words have a way of losing their original meaning over time. Take the word “deadline.” It conjures up images of an old movie with a cynical, chain-smoking reporter hunched over his typewriter in the dead of night, feverishly writing his big story in time to meet the deadline lest he face the wrath of his cigar-chomping editor, lose his job, and let some despicable deed go unexposed and unpunished.
“Deadline” had an even more deadly meaning in its earlier usage. The word comes to us from the American Civil War, where prisoner-of-war camps had “dead-lines,” which, if crossed by prisoners, would result in them being shot and killed. Deadlines were serious business indeed.
On a more mundane level, when our packaging company missed a delivery deadline, there was hell to pay. Who cares if a bunch of boxes get delivered a little late, one might think. Sometimes it mattered a lot. Being out of packaging materials could shut down a production line, cause products to be damaged, cause our customers to miss deliveries to their customers, and lose them as a result. Delivery deadlines were taken seriously because they were serious—missing them was unacceptable.
Are your deadlines fuzzy targets?
Today, deadlines have retained their deadly serious meaning in many companies to be sure, but certainly not in all of them. In some organizations, when a deadline is missed, nobody is held accountable; instead, nothing happens. And, of course, this absence of consequences tells employees in no uncertain terms that deadlines are fuzzy targets—goals and aspirations rather than drop-dead, do-or-die deliverables.
I would hate to be a customer of a company like that. Wouldn’t you? An indifference to deadlines can never hide within the company walls. Sooner or later, customers pick up on a lackadaisical attitude and move their business elsewhere. Whether they’re buying boxes, airplanes, legal services, or chewing gum, every customer wants one thing: a supplier willing to move mountains to get the job done.
Are your deadlines double standards?
A problem just as bad (maybe worse) is a company that has no accountability for its own deadlines, but puts a supplier’s feet to the fire for any and all missed deadlines. This situation occurs with unfortunate frequency in the website design business. If the design firm misses a milestone by a day, the knives are sharpened and the whips made ready; if the client misses a milestone by a month, it’s a mere shrug of the shoulders.
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A double standard such as this, beyond adding cost and inefficiency to any undertaking, can utterly ruin a company’s reputation and its ability to attract new suppliers—and in this age of social media and online reviews, frustrated suppliers can share their negative experiences publicly with the greatest of ease, allowing customers and prospects to learn all about them.
Restoring deadline integrity
If a deadline is a punch line, it won’t be long before sales and profit charts are a flat line. How does this situation come about, and how can it be remedied?
Is an employee-focused culture getting in the way?
Small and large companies are bending over backward to attract and accommodate talented employees by providing a rich cafeteria of benefits and perks. All good, unless it interferes with or undermines discipline and accountability. The challenge is to balance being a nice place to work with being a company that demands results. If leadership and management prioritize being friends with employees over being leaders and managers, a company will get very sloppy.
Is social advocacy getting in the way?
A troubling trend in business is the politicization of company policies and priorities. Some companies have taken matters to such an extreme that they appear more interested in advocating a given social agenda over taking care of business. If this happens, an organization cannot help but take its eye off the deadline ball.
Are outdated or overloaded operational tools getting in the way?
The problem of missing deadlines could be caused by a company outgrowing its software and systems for manufacturing, project management, CRM, inventory management, etc. Perhaps employees feel managers don’t care about deadlines because managers don’t know deadlines are being missed. Small companies can fall into this trap as easily as big ones if they are growing rapidly or have changed their business model.
Are you imposing impossible deadlines?
Some companies go wrong by arbitrarily saying they will deliver every order in 24 hours, submit every proposal within two days, and so on. Maybe deadlines are being missed simply because they are impossible to meet, or at least not cost effective to meet.
Is your industry pulling you down?
Certain industries are notorious for missing deadlines—showing up late, not showing up at all, not returning phone calls, not sending proposals on time, etc. If you are in an industry such as this, you are lucky; you have a golden opportunity to set yourself apart and capture the lion’s share of business wherever you operate. Companies with standout service win big when bad service is the customer’s number one complaint.
Getting started on the fix
Restoring deadline integrity is, however, difficult and uncomfortable. It requires taking a hard, critical look at the entire business. It requires changing priorities and relationships that people hold dear, and may require implementing organizational and operational changes that upset everyone’s routine.