FROM THE BULL | When I was a kid my Dad, an ex-army officer, used to patrol the house turning off any unnecessary lights as he went. He still does. Dad is a “waste-not, want-not” type of guy. A childhood spent in the tough years of the 1930s, with very limited means, teaches you to conserve resources and make the most of what you have. It’s a good life skill.

This mind-set rubbed off on me and has guided my entire business career. I unashamedly turn lights off and scour for opportunities to sensibly save money whenever I can. Waste is an enemy of business and I root it out and remove it, wherever it is.

My philosophy is simple – don’t spend money unless it makes you more money. Implicit in this method is stripping out anything that your customers would not be prepared to pay for in higher prices. This provides a razor-sharp focus and an “honest” approach to business which customers appreciate.

But this attitude is much more than just about turning lights off and saving money. It’s about noticing and acting on anything that can be improved in your business. Loose electrical cords under a desk, old magazines in the reception area, a broken web-link, telephones that aren’t answered, debtor days creeping out, bins overflowing, slow order processing  and customer parking spots occupied by staff vehicles  are sure signs that management is “out to lunch”.

Roger Corbett, ex-CEO of Woolworths, knew this well. Legend has it that he once found a Woolworths shopping trolley in Sydney’s Circular Quay, near the Opera House. He pushed it 1.5kms to return it to a store near the Town Hall. He did it while wearing his “My name is Roger” name badge, which he wore everywhere.

Roger knew that if he set the best example on the “small stuff” then there was a much better chance that everyone else would follow and it would have an exponential effect on the company culture. The not so subtle message was that if I’m prepared to do it, then so should you. It must have worked. During his seven years as CEO, the market capitalisation of Woolworths increased from $18.5bn to $37bn – not bad for a bloke pushing a trolley!

Don’t delude yourself – this stuff matters. The small stuff is a window to the heart, soul and underlying health of any business. If small problems are left unattended, the business will eventually soften up, service levels will deteriorate, the internal culture will suffer and customers will get fed up and leave. It’s a slippery slope from that point on.

The important thing is to get the balance right between the big picture activities and the smaller day to day ones. Simply, fixing the small problems immediately once you find them will provide more time later to focus on more strategic matters when they emerge. The key is to fix them once properly so they NEVER repeat.

Next time you see a light on in an empty room, a bin that needs emptying or a phone that should be answered don’t look around for someone else to do it. Just do it. The practicalities of IMMEDIATELY saving money, improving efficiency or satisfying a customer should be reason enough to do it. But the symbolic value of acting quickly and decisively, irrespective of your rank in the company, is priceless.