Picture this: Your business has its ups and downs, but for the most part it’s going along okay.
As you look across the office, you realize you have the full range of employees from green to good. You like them, mostly, and they seem to like you even though you’ve overheard some conversations in the hallway that sounded like grumbling.
When you don’t put strong procedures in place, you’re really asking for expensive, reputation-damaging trouble.
The trouble is, they’re always coming to you to solve their production problems and never seem to learn from their mistakes. You’d think they’d figure it out at some point. It bothers you that they come in late, want to take off early and those sick days are on the rise, which throws everything into a bunch. They don’t seem to care whether your business does well or not. You dream of taking your business to the next level but there’s no time for that with all the fires you have to put out for them every day.
And then one morning two of your staff, Josh and Amy, blushingly announce that they’re eloping and moving to New York City to start new jobs. They excitedly tell everyone that the company wants them there right away so they can’t give any notice. In fact, they’re leaving that weekend. The staff is beyond excited and proceeds to plan drinks after work, even though an important client deadline is looming.
What? You gasp. Eloping? Leaving? What?!
Josh and Amy have been with you the longest. The amount of knowledge they have in their respective heads is staggering, and none of it is written down. No one else on staff comes close to having their experience. What on earth will you do now?
Documenting and Cross-Training
This type of situation happens every single day in seemingly healthy companies all across the globe. Business owners have a tendency to significantly under-value the importance of not only documenting procedures but making them an integral part of the daily process and ensuring cross-training is the norm. They might know intellectually that structure is important, but as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — until something like this happens and it’s too late to fix it.
We know that life is full of uncertainty, which is why we buy insurance policies, have our annual check-up and keep an umbrella in the trunk of the car. Not to be morbid, but when you rely on people to get the work done and you don’t put strong procedures in place to ensure that you can quickly recover from their absence, you’re really asking for some expensive and reputation-damaging trouble.
The following characteristics are the unfortunate description of a house of cards:
- Procedures are passed along by word-of-mouth (aka tribal knowledge)
- Processing errors aren’t reviewed and the resulting solutions aren’t documented, so there’s no way to prevent recurrence
- Checks and balances, if they exist, are casually observed and therefore unreliable
- You assume the staff knows your expectations, they don’t and so you’re constantly disappointed in them
- Errors are too frequent, you’re upset, the staff is frustrated and you often feel like you need to do their work for them just to get past the current day’s difficulty
- The staff has no ownership of their work product and therefore no motivation to do well
- Absenteeism and turnover are high and there’s no stability in sight
- You can’t grow because there’s simply no time to be strategic
- When new (replacement) staff comes on board it takes forever for them to get the hang of the work and there’s no guarantee that their knowledge is accurate
- You have no way of knowing if the business is being run the way you want it to be run — until it isn’t
What’s critical to the bottom line of every business is having staff who see that they’re part of something bigger than themselves because they understand and execute on their specific contribution to the operation. That can only be achieved by having solid procedures that have been assigned and integrated into daily work so they’re followed routinely — that means they're not just sitting in a dusty binder on the shelf.
Getting your procedures updated or created from scratch takes time and energy, but it is some of the best money you can spend to create a productive, smoothly running and proactive organization.
Here’s how the same business could look:
- All the steps in the daily operation are documented and assigned to the appropriate task owner — consistency
- These procedures are loaded into an online repository where each step is checked off by the task owner so that everyone, including you, knows the status of the daily flow — reliability
- When errors do occur, the staff comes to you to describe the break, tells you how they propose to fix it and requests your sign-off, letting you know that they will update the procedures to ensure the problem doesn’t happen again — ownership
- The staff is operating from a common playbook, with common objectives and the feeling that their contribution is an important part of the process — continuity
- Turnover is lower than ever but when you do bring on new staff, on-boarding is a breeze — efficiency
- You’ve instituted a quarterly or semi-annual process review where you encourage the staff to contribute their ideas for improvement — culture shift
- The staff are happy, feel they have a voice in the business and take pride in a job well done — effectiveness
- You have made your standards and expectations clear, and staff are meeting them — sustainability
- The process flow is smoother, faster and you’re seeing the possibility of expanding into a new product line — scalability
- The staff knows what they’re doing and the business largely runs without your intervention — salability
This is the description of a sophisticated, savvy, mature organization that understands its business and the financial benefits of running a smart shop. Achieving this level of proficiency won’t take as long or cost as much as you think. The trick is to get it handled sooner rather than later so you’re ready for whatever surprises come your way.
About the Author
Carolyne Simi started her career as a professional project manager in the information technology space for major financial institutions in San Francisco and New York City. It was a good profession while she was an employee of those big banks, but an even better profession when she found the courage to launch her own independent consultancy in 1999. That became her introduction to entrepreneurship.
During those indie consultant days, she experienced a wide variety of projects of all sizes. It was an excellent training ground for learning how to stay nimble and focused, keep the team on track and problem-solve our way to the finish line.
The next move was to leverage her corporate experience into a valuable service to help the small- and medium-sized business sector. Your Project Planner has become one of the few companies that helps businesses become sustainable, scalable and salable by implementing the tools, procedures and processes that improve team cohesiveness and engenders ownership of the operations side of the business.