Guest Author: Michael Platt, AccountingWEB, Inc.
Think about this for a moment: If you were hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, would someone else be able to step in and do your job without missing a beat, or would there be a significant learning curve to carry out your tasks? Far too often, businesses lose significant momentum and forward progress when their employees leave, are sick, or simply don't have an effective system for doing the work that they do. And with the margin between success and failure often being razor thin, most businesses can ill-afford to surrender this kind of progress. What hurts even more is that the backpedaling that occurs when a business loses momentum is usually a self-inflicted wound, one that could have been avoided with just a little up-front planning.
A fable, brought into popular culture by Steven Covey in "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", demonstrates the value of this planning:
Once upon a time a very strong woodcutter asked for a job with a lumber company, and he got it. The pay was really good and so were the work conditions. For that reason, the woodcutter was determined to do his best. His boss gave him an ax and showed him the area where he was supposed to work. The first day, the woodcutter brought 18 trees. "Congratulations," the boss said. "Continue what you were doing!" Very motivated by the boss’ words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he only could bring 15 trees. The third day he tried even harder, but he only could bring 10 trees. Day after day he was bringing less and less trees. "I must be losing my strength", the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on. "When was the last time you sharpened your ax?" the boss asked. "Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my ax. I have been too busy trying to cut trees..."
Successful business franchise holders know that their success comes more easily because someone took the time to identify and document EVERY process necessary to run the business, and then fine-tune these processes - sharpening the axes - so that the system is continuously improved upon.
Document processes and improve. Document processes and improve. That should be the mantra for any successful development and forward progress within a business.
Think about a process as any repeatable business event, such as hiring a new employee, paying an invoice, or prospecting for new clients. There are dozens of these processes and hundreds of sub-processes within any given business environment. Whether you are an employee or a leader, you can contribute to "sharpening the axe" by going through these three steps:
STEP 1: Identify the processes in your area of responsibility.
STEP 2: Take each process and break it down into the smallest pieces. Each process is likely made up of many smaller processes.
STEP 3: "Sharpen the Axe." Solicit the input of those who participate in this process to see if any of the individual pieces may be able to be done more effectively or efficiently than the way you are currently doing it.
Let's look at an example.
A process that all businesses have in common is one of hiring a new employee. Let's see how many smaller processes we can break that into:
- Determine the desired time frame for bringing in the new hire
- Prepare/update a proper job description
- Place an ad in the appropriate job boards/classified section of the newspaper
- Assign someone to collect and screen resumes
- Create a filing system for resume collection
- Acknowledge receipt of all resumes received
- Determine criteria for inviting people in for an interview
- Schedule the interviews
- Coordinate an interview team who will have defined responsibilities during the interview process
- Create a timetable and agenda for the interview
- Prepare a list of questions for each interviewer
- Train interviewers on how to conduct an effective interview
- Communicate with the interview team before each interview & resolve any questions
- Agree to a common methodology of evaluating the candidate
- Determine when and how an offer will be extended
- Secure the proper office space for the interview
- Hold the interview
- De-brief with other members of the interview team
- Set up second interview if necessary
- Coordinate team approach for second interview
- Make a decision on the candidate
- Extend the job offer
- Send rejection letters to those who did not make the cut
- Have contingencies if the first candidate declines
- Welcome letter to the new employee
- Prepare an office location for the new employee
- Handle all administrative needs for bringing on a new employee (payroll, HR, e-mail, keys, building access, parking facilities, business cards, telephone extension, network access, etc.)
- Implement a Day One Orientation plan
- Implement a Week One Orientation plan
Thirty processes (at least) just to hire a new staff person! Recognize that each of the sub-processes can likely be broken down into even smaller processes. If each of these steps is done on an ad hoc basis, how effective or efficient would this process really be? Would you maximize every opportunity to ensure success? Are the chances high that any one of these processes may fail, thereby derailing the whole system? How beneficial would it be to you and your organization to document how you do each of these so that the next time you hire a new staff person there is a coordinated plan for accomplishing that task? How beneficial would it be if you examined each one of the sub-processes to determine if there was a "better way" to accomplish any of these?
I'm busy. I haven't got the time to do all of this!
Like the story about sharpening the axe, all of us are always so busy "doing" that we often don't have the time to think, prepare, document, plan, and fine-tune. Yet, as the story shows, we can all see the long term benefits of sharpening the axe, even though sometimes the process to get there can seem somewhat tedious.
Here's what to do.
Commit to devoting no more than ONE HOUR A WEEK to this "document and improve" effort. Write it into your schedule. Treat it like a client appointment. Don't let anything stop you from making that appointment.
During that hour, identify one particular business process that you are responsible for. Write down each element of what goes into that process, and document how you do each one of those elements. Over the course of a year, you alone will have documented 50 different business processes, significantly raising your level of contribution to the long-term health and welfare of the business. Once the processes are documented, look at each one individually, and solicit feedback from others who may have helpful input to determine if there is a better, faster, more effective, more profitable, or more efficient way to perform each task. Your goal should be to achieve "world class" execution of each and every process within your business.
The dilemma that most people face is that they believe that if the knowledge they carry around in their head is standardized and documented, then ANYONE can do the job, and therefore they feel they have less job security than when they were "the only one" who knew how to do something.
In a knowledge society, relationships, institutional knowledge, and flawless execution of the standardized processes still reigns supreme. So rather than working hard to protect your job as a defensive posture, why not experience the benefits of proactively contributing to the success of your organization by participating in a "document and improve" effort. You will be valued even more by your positive approach to building the business than by your defensive approach to protecting your territory.
Michael Platt is the CEO of AccountingWEB and a certified Upstream Guide, helping businesses achieve success through continuous improvement utilizing the Blueprint For Excellence program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.