Have you checked your company’s cholesterol?

Riding into the new year.

I’m not great with New Year’s Resolutions, but I do like to be reflective this time of year and try to think about what I have learned, how I can improve, and whether or not I need to adjust my sails. Earlier this past summer, my wife and I went in for our every other year annual physical and it turned out to be a learning experience. While regular checkups are a good idea, we are incredibly healthy and just don’t make many visits to our friendly family doctor.

This year, our doctor suggested we include a new blood test from a local company, Liposcience. It’s called an NMR LipoProfile test. I have some family history of heart disease and this is a new way to look at one of the culprits, cholesterol. My first reaction was to pass on the test, especially given that my levels have always bordered on being too low – with my last check being somewhere in the 120 range. Not bad for someone that bakes cookies with butter for a living. (FYI – my grandparents ate fried pork, eggs, and biscuits with redeye gravy at LEAST once a day and lived to be 86 – go figure).

But our doctor is very well read and a great guy who is not into the latest ‘pharma fad’, so I opted to give them an extra vile of my blood to check. The theory behind this test is that it is not necessarily the level of cholesterol that really matters. But rather, it is the number and size of the lipoprotein particles that carry the cholesterol in my bloodstream that are the real determinate of whether or not I am at risk for developing plaque in my arteries.

He explained that the interior walls of the artery are not really solid, but have small pockets or holes that allow molecules to pass through. Their theory, and it seemed logical, is that if there are a large number of small particles carrying the cholesterol, they can easily become lodged in these openings, building up, and eventually leading to hardening of the arteries, blockage, and all the ugliness that comes along with stoppage of blood flow to the heart.

When Debbie went for her physical a few weeks later, she also opted for the test. We were anxious to get the results, given that her cholesterol level has always been on the high side, north of 200, long before we ever started the cookie business. Would the test results shed any new light on our health profiles?

I received my lab results back first and it was indeed a surprise and right in line with Doc’s thinking. My cholesterol, although very low (<150), was being carried in a high number of small particles, putting me in a higher risk category. I’m not sedentary, have been practicing yoga three times a week for the past 6 years and am well within my weight range. No pills or diets, just a life of moderation. Debbie’s results came in shortly thereafter and sure enough, her cholesterol level was above ‘normal’. However, the LipoProfile showed her particles were fewer and very large, putting her in the lowest risk category. This is exactly the opposite of what traditional thinking might render. If you’ve stayed with me this far, you must be wondering ‘What in the world does this have to do with business?’ As we just put to rest what will most likely be recorded as one of the most disastrous years for the economy in my lifetime, I’ve been thinking about what really lead us up to these seemingly unfathomable problems. After all, just a few years ago we were ticking along nicely, knowing that we are always prone to economic cycles, but not fearing death of the likes of American Home Mortgage, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia and others. I’m thinking we might want to examine the patient from a new perspective, challenging the ‘traditional thinking’ of what causes these types of major problems. Perhaps we should be looking at the quantity of small, almost microscopic problems that have become so systemic in business today, as the real killer. Maybe these silent, almost imperceptible issues that go on every day in all types of operations are the catalyst that eventually leads to this type of economic myocardial infarction. Risk may very well come, not from the big problems that everyone sees and talks about, but rather from these smaller issues that embed themselves slowly over time, leading to serious and sometimes fatal consequences for a business. I’m certain that virtually every one reading this post can recant stories from your workplace or other businesses, where issues were ignored, overlooked or just plain dismissed as not that important. It goes on everyday, in small and medium businesses and especially in the larger companies where operational and ethical problems are easy to hide. Earlier this spring, Debbie and I strolled in to our local bank branch to refinance our home equity line of credit and lower the interest rate. We had not been in the branch much before and had never met the loan officer. We walked in, introduced ourselves, sat down, signed the paperwork that was already prepared, and re-indebted ourselves. When we finished the transaction, I asked the loan officer why she never asked for any ID. How did she know it was really us? We never provided any proof of ID, income, address, or anything. In our case, this was clearly a legitimate transaction, but I’m wondering how my times over the past years these transactions happened where perhaps things were not in order. At banks, at insurance companies, car manufacturers, technology companies – the list goes on and on. Business now moves almost at the speed of thought, and it might be that very thing that has helped put us at risk for serious problems. By moving too quickly, businesses and ultimately the people that run them, ignore the details, allow decisions to be made that are not right, but easy to let go, and create what will ultimately be fatal outcomes for many institutions in our economy. “So Doc, how do I fix this small molecule problem?” Fortunately, it was a fairly simple solution. I need more aerobic exercise and to increase my intake of omega-3 fats. So I’m back on the fish oil pills with a vengeance. And, while it has taken some effort to consistently roll out of bed and hop on the bike for my morning ride, it has given me a fresh perspective on life and business. I’m afraid the solution for businesses and our economy might not be that simple. To begin with, you have to recognize the problem and I fear that our leaders, execs and many individuals are still too busy pointing fingers instead of getting to the root of the disease. Despite the wave of ‘change’ that has swept through our electoral offices this past November, I’m not convinced the bureaucrats understand the problem, the intricacies of running a business, or how to craft a real solution. There is no simple fix, but here are a couple of ideas that might help:

  • Embrace creative thought. If you have ever worked in, or created an environment where, creative thinking is squelched, then you’ve been in a business with carotid arteries. The flow of ideas is the lifeblood of business. Ask more questions. Eliminate ‘No’ as a first response. Put on a different pair of eyes. Avoid complacency. You never really know where the solution to a problem or the next million dollar idea is going to come from.
  • Think it through. I have a copy of ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’ on my bookshelf and understand the pain of micro-management, but I believe it is critical to examine processes, decisions and actions in detail. Think through the ramifications. Small issues and problems can be cumulative and have catastrophic consequences. Take responsibility. Take time. And as Thomas Watson said, ‘THINK’.
  • Do the right thing. Early this past fall, I went back to my alma mater, The Fuqua School of Business, to facilitate a day of reflection for the returning students on their summer work experience. The focus of the event was to talk about decision making and courage in the workplace. The courage to do the right thing in what professor Joe Leboeuf called, ‘moments that matter – when no one is looking’. Stop protecting your ego. Remember the Golden Rule. When you do the right thing consistently, you develop mental toughness and set a benchmark that helps keep your life, your career and your business healthy.

Focusing on small problems might be a hard sell for those who only look at the world from the thirty thousand foot level, but Doc has me sold. So I’ll be cycling down the road, swallowing a fish oil pill, and thinking about managing my life and my businesses so that I avoid what Fred Sanford comically referred to as ‘The Big One’. It might be too late for Lehman and many others, but there are plenty of businesses out there that might want to get a thorough physical, change perspective on sweating the details and come out for a ride.

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