Business as a "Well Oiled Machine"

I was thinking more about the business ideas portrayed in "You've Got Mail" (because I mentioned the movie in this post) and one thing I find interesting is a scene just after Joe Fox (Hanks) has met Kathleen Kelley (Ryan) in the coffee shop. The next day Fox is walking around the new book store telling his manager the story, then he says he doesn't want to talk about it anymore and asks the manager "don't you have some work to do?" The manager responds, "not really, this place is a well oiled machine."

This idea is interesting to me because many people believe it isn't possible. I am frequently in arguments with my parents and a few friends who think that running your own business is always a ton of hard work and long hours. I have a different view. Sure, when you first get started it is tough, and some people always put in long hours because they love what they do or they don't feel comfortable leaving decisions to anyone else, but in the long-term I think the goal should always be to build up a well-oiled machine.

My first supervisory position was at one of those double drive thru restaurants, when I was 18. I was only a shift manager but I still got to run the entire store by myself sometimes (truth be told I was way better at it than the three managers above me). It was like a big game or puzzle to me, figuring out which employees had which skills and where I should put them each day to maximize efficiency. Satisfaction came from setting things up so that we could have a rush of cars, and I could just sit back and watch things flow smoothly. Granted this didn't always happen, but the times it did were great, and it was always my goal.

Years ago I read Peter Lynch's "One Up on Wall Street", and one quote always stuck in my head.

"I want to buy a company any fool can run, because eventually one will," he says.

How true is that? I think Lynch is right. I think a good CEO should build up a company so that it can run without him/her. Some of you know I am currently in the loan process, seeking to start my own business, and my goal is to build a well-oiled machine, then go on and build another and another etc.

Lots of people think this isn't possible, and maybe for some businesses it isn't. Definitely there are some stages in the business cycle where a well-oiled machine isn't possible. I would be very interested in hearing the opinions of those of you with more experience at this. Can a company be a well-oiled machine, and should that be the goal of top executives?

***Note that I am not saying a well-oiled machine should lead to complacency, just that it frees the boss from thinking about day to day operations, and makes the company such that the loss of a single key person will not wreak havoc on the business.