How Klick constantly improves by tracking tons of data

CEO Leerom Segal says it’s not enough just to collect data about your operations—a culture of transparency is key

 
Office worker discovering location pins on his desk

(Illustration by Miguel Montaner)

This is the first in a series of profiles of the PROFIT 500—Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies. For more, go to PROFIT500.com.

You could say that Klick Inc. is powered by a number of different elements. Coffee plays an important role; the company’s employees gulped more than 60,000 cups from the office coffee maker one year. Red Bull might be another. Klick CEO Leerom Segal, though it’s 5 p.m. and he already seems pretty wired, opts for a can of the energy drink from his personal stash in his office. And, at the risk of sounding overly earnest, there’s passion for the work: digital marketing services for healthcare firms, among other things. But the most important thing powering Klick might just be data.

A steady stream of it informs much of the decision-making at the Toronto-based company, though Segal is careful to point out that it isn’t the only tool Klick uses. “When used as a sixth sense—not as your primary sense—data creates an amazing opportunity for teams to have an intelligence advantage,” says Segal, who is also a co-founder of Klick. “When implemented properly, you can have confidence in your data, and that confidence will enable you to make the right decisions.”

Klick—which is No. 189 on the PROFIT 500 Ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies—is constantly collecting information about its operations, employee activities and behaviour to figure out how it can improve. Are any of its projects in need of immediate intervention? A quick glance at an internal monitoring system, which assigns colour-coded flags to each initiative, offers real-time feedback. Are any employees taking on disproportionately heavy workloads? Workplace time calculators provide snapshots of that, too.

Segal argues that companies have invested huge amounts of time and money into understanding every nuance of their customers, but put in comparatively little to understand their own operations. For business owners, focusing just as much attention on internal functions can be a competitive advantage. “The capability is only now beginning to be understood,” Segal says. But it’s not enough to just collect data. Segal advocates for being as open and transparent with information as possible, which allows everybody to make more informed decisions.

Klick uses a custom software program called Genome to keep tabs on its operations. Employees use it for project management, goal-setting, budget monitoring, hiring and for communicating with one another. But the overarching principle—a constant rigorous scrutiny of internal operations to improve efficiency—is one that any company can adopt.

Since Klick was founded in 1997, it has gleaned a wealth of information about itself. Some of it might seem trivial (how much coffee people are drinking, for example), but even seemingly frivolous findings can spark inspiration. Genome, for example, is connected to employees’ key cards, and therefore it knows how often each person takes the stairs as opposed to the elevator. Klick used that finding to start a competition to see who climbed the most stairs in order to encourage healthier habits. The company uses information from its internal social media feed in a similar way. Employees earn credits through Genome for completing projects, based on criteria like margins and speed, and they can use those credits to make donations to various charities Klick supports. A leaderboard keeps track of who’s contributed the most, inspiring a kind of healthy competition.

Not everything Klick does comes down to hard figures, though, and the company monitors employees’ feelings and perceptions about their work, too. Take Klick’s approach to project management, which is handled within Genome. Everybody working on a particular project is required to offer an assessment once per week and share their thoughts on how they think it’s going. They also assign a rating to the project—green, yellow, red or blue (for awesome). The rating system allows team members to get a real-time view of a project’s health so they can intervene to fix problems before they snowball. Employees offer a similar assessment of clients, making note of how they think the client is currently feeling about the project, and about Klick. The process helps ensure client relationships don’t get strained, and that any issues can be addressed immediately. By soliciting feedback and monitoring it on an ongoing basis, the company can avoid nasty surprises.

Employees themselves are put under a microscope, too. Klick uses Genome to collect and visualize data on how much time each individual employee is spending on every project, so managers know who’s working too much or too little. And because Genome is connected to the security key-card system at headquarters, it knows when employees are in the office. Everyone at Klick, in fact, can see whether their coworkers are in the building. A few new employees were a little apprehensive about this feature at first, “but the utility outweighs any risk,” Segal says. It’s even possible to “subscribe” to other employees and have Genome send notifications when those people arrive at work.

Transparency, Segal says, is part of Klick’s culture. Withholding information from employees creates problems, in Segal’s view. “When you have information that’s only available to a group of people, especially senior people, that asymmetry can be a source of politics,” he says. “But it’s very different if I have the same information as everyone else.” At Klick, that means employees can see how projects are faring and if they’re on track to meet budget. (Salaries are not disclosed, however, partly because Segal believes it could lead to unhealthy competition between employees and departments.)

This approach works well at Klick because the company culture is open to begin with. Segal’s mentors initially cast doubt on the philosophy, however. A few years ago, he and co-founder Aaron Goldstein introduced a feature on Genome called Chatter, essentially a Facebook-like news feed. Segal presented the concept at a meeting with his mentors, a group of older, more successful businesspeople. They spent the whole meeting explaining why it was a bad idea. They were particularly appalled when, during Segal’s demo, they saw that one employee had posted a comment calling Goldstein an “asshole.” Chatter looked unruly and unprofessional. While Segal didn’t agree with the language, he took some pride in knowing the employee felt comfortable enough to be honest.

The offensive comment was in regard to a post Goldstein wrote about the importance of filling out time sheets. Other employees commented on the post, too, and later Segal and Goldstein discussed whether to get involved. It soon became clear to both of them that there was a problem with how the company required time sheets to be filled out. Employees started recommending improvements, and the next day, someone offered a solution that Goldstein liked. He gave the go-ahead to implement it. “Two weeks later, a problem we didn’t even know we had was solved,” Segal says. “Now the opposite would have happened if this person had been reprimanded for calling Aaron an a-hole, and if we’d shut down the conversation.”

Segal has since become an evangelist for data, openness and, of course, Genome. After fielding calls from companies wanting to know if the software was available for purchase, Klick opened a new division called Sensei Labs to develop and sell Genome, which will be rechristened Sensei OS for the broader market. Three pilot projects are now under way, and the goal is to have the division fully up and running by late 2016—creating a whole new department and crop of employees for Klick to monitor, analyze and improve upon.

Leerom Segal will appear at the Profit 500 CEO Summit in Toronto on Oct. 5.

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