Systems are wonderful. You can sit down after the Christmas and New Year break, confident that you’ll be able to pick up exactly where you left off. With no problems.
Or can you?
Perhaps that’s not your experience. Perhaps – when you get back to your desk – there’s a moment of dread. A moment where you’re thinking ‘Oh no – not again…!’
Don’t worry. You’re not alone. The world is full of systems that were started for a perfectly good reason. And which have long since outlived their usefulness.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ‘old-fashioned’ systems. It’s very tempting to change a system simply because it seems a bit passé, but that, on its own, isn’t enough of a reason. Consider, for example, the fuss that was made about fax machines being used by the NHS. If you want a good example of 1980s tech, look no further. Fax machines were wonderful when they first appeared, but that was long before we had something called email. So surely it makes sense to use email instead?
Or does it?
When older is better…
In conversation with a friend who’s worked in the NHS I asked exactly that question. She grinned. ‘Of course email’s better. But not for everything.’
Surprised, I asked what she had in mind.
‘Simple,’ she said. ‘A nurse is writing a note – by hand – because it’s the quickest way to communicate an urgent request. She sticks it in a fax machine, presses a preset number to send it to a colleague, and the job’s done. It would take her twice or three times as long to send an email. And she doesn’t have the time. Even if she were allowed to use a smartphone in the operating theatre…’
So it may be old. But if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. If it is broke, on the other hand…
Why systems go worng…
There seems to be a rule that the bigger the project, the more likely it is to go wrong. Without casting stones at any particular administration, that seems to go double for major government IT projects.
So why do they fail so often?
I like to think it’s a collision of good intentions. A consultant friend recently told me about his experience with HMRC’s very first self-assessment form, long before the days when there was handy software around to help him fill it out. It took him two weeks, during which he, as a full-time freelancer, earned nothing at all. ‘They should have been paying me to do my tax!’ he laughed. So what did he think was the problem with it?
‘When I looked at it, I could see that someone – perhaps a consultant like me – had tried very hard to make it clear, straightforward, and easy to complete. All the signs were there. My guess? I think that after that it went through about half a dozen different civil service desks. And every single one of them added their own feedback. They’d have pointed out all the little exceptions. All the tricky details. In fact, all those things that make our tax system totally unsuitable for self-assessment – unless you’re a tax accountant. And that form was the result.
‘So yes – that particular road to hell was paved with good intentions. And millions of people had to travel it. All I can say is “thank God for software.”‘
…what can you do if you’re faced with a similar chimera?
A good place to start is with comments and feedback from people who have to use your systems, but had no part in creating them. People coming to it with a fresh pair of eyes. If they’re told what it’s meant to do, they may very well come up with fresh ideas and fresh approaches for delivering the results you really want.
As opposed to delivering frustration, annoyance, and bad feeling.
And if you could use a little help – and another fresh pair of eyes – why not book a free initial consultation?
So. When you’re ‘working’, what do you actually do?
Let’s face it, ‘working’ means different things to different people. But if you’re running your own business, then ‘look busy, the boss is coming’ will certainly not apply.
Even so, there may be things you’re doing – even necessary things – that aren’t making the best use of your time. So your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to decide which is which.
And in this case you might want to involve your Secretary (if you have one) very closely, so they can’t disavow all knowledge of your actions later on.
Do, Delegate or Dump?
When it comes to deciding what you should (or should not) be doing there’s a simple but effective litmus test you can use.
- Do the things that only you can do.
- Delegate the things that someone else can do as well as (or better than) you.
- And Dump the things that really don’t need doing at all.
The first and last seem pretty obvious. It’s the delegation that usually causes a problem. Especially if you don’t actually have a person to whom you can delegate things.
Now it is, of course, just possible that your life partner absolutely loves – and is good at – all the jobs you hate. You also have a perfect relationship where he or she has enough time on their hands to dive in and help when SS Your Business seems to be heading for the rocks.
But back in the real world it’s more likely that your better half (even assuming you have one) will have other things to do. Usually at precisely the time you need their help. And – again in the real world – their idea of heaven will not necessarily include filing the Tower of Babel that used to be your paperwork. Or, for that matter, chasing six-month-old invoices you’ve inconveniently forgotten about.
Worse yet, even if they do these things – perhaps out of loyalty to you – they may not be very good at doing them…
However, there is an answer. You can outsource the problem to a specialist. Because – believe it or not – there really are people out there who enjoy those things. (And enjoy them even more if they can prevent them happening in the first place…)
But you can’t just throw them a bag full of paper. (Well – you can, but you might get it thrown right back.) You have to do your outsourcing properly…
So what does that actually mean?
Well, put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment. If you were taking on that kind of work for someone else, there are a few questions you might want to ask them:
- What are you delegating – what’s included, and what isn’t?
- Why are you delegating this work? Is it to free up your time? To reduce costs? Or some other reason? (There could be many more.)
- To whom are you delegating? If it’s ‘someone you know’ have you checked their qualifications and their CV? As carefully as you’d check those of a future employee…?
- When do you want the work completed?
Successful outsourcing depends on asking – and answering – those questions, and ensuring that the person doing the work understands precisely what you are asking them to do.
‘Trouble is that my cash doesn’t so much flow as tinkle…’
Cashflow is a common problem, and not just among small businesses. Complaints about slow payment are frequent – so what can you do to encourage your clients to pay on time, and in full?
Well, you could begin by thinking of this as an issue with your business process rather than an issue with your clients…
Why your process could stop you getting paid…
Have you ever reviewed your accounting process?
When asked, it’s amazing how many people say ‘no’. And yet it’s one of the first things you should do if cashflow is important to you. (And if it isn’t, you probably don’t need to be in business!)
Taking it step by step:
- When – and how – do you send an invoice?
- What is your process for checking it has been sent – and received?
- How can you be sure that the right person is receiving that invoice – i.e. someone who has the authority and ability to pay it?
- How do you ensure that they fully understand what they are paying for?
- How do you ensure that they know how to pay – and where they should send their payment?
- How do you ensure that they understand your terms of payment?
- What is your process for recording payments made?
- How and when do you send payment reminders?
- Do you send overdue notices? How and when?
- How – and how quickly – do you respond when clients fail to pay?
I am constantly amazed at how many businesses have nothing in place for one or more of these critical steps. So amazed, in fact, that I’ve produced a beginner’s guide to avoiding payment.
It shows you exactly what not to do – and you can see it here…
But the invoice, of course, is just part of the process. You need to consider the whole process – in detail.
Is someone who struggles with change ‘resistant’ to it? Or are they simply not ready for change?
The difference is important, because ‘readiness for change’ is something you can gauge even before a change takes place.
By knowing how ready for change they are – and working to increase their readiness – you may never need to deal with ‘resistance’ at all.
Using the word ‘readiness’ also removes the rather judgemental associations of the word ‘resistance’. That will affect the attitudes and approach of the people who need to make change happen.
So – how can you determine someone’s readiness? (And let’s give the ‘someone’ a name – Hubert – to avoid complicated language. Apologies to anyone called Hubert, of course…)
There are two issues you need to think about:
- The drivers: How bad does Hubert believe that things now? How much – in Hubert’s view – will change improve them?
- The restraint: How secure does Hubert feel with things as they are?
Drivers for change
If Hubert’s unhappy then he’s far more likely to welcome change. And the more unhappy he is, the more willing he will be to try something new.
If Hubert is comfortable with things as they are it may be hard to persuade him to do things differently – let alone to do things that are different.
So – in essence – a successful change needs to be driven by at least a moderate level of dissatisfaction.
But it also needs to overcome…
Restraints on change
Good research suggests that Hubert’s own feelings of security may be a critical barrier to change. And (by definition) those feelings will be very difficult for anyone except Hubert to determine! That’s because we’re talking about subjective perception, not objective reality. So to truly understand Hubert’s position you’d need to be inside his head. And seeing the world exactly as he sees it.
This subject is tricky enough to deserve a post of its own. So, for the moment, let’s assume we have at least a rough idea about Hubert’s level of felt security.
What effect will this have on his readiness to accept change?
Suppose Hubert is feeling insecure at the moment. That means his anxiety levels are high, and he will be unwilling or even unable to cope with change.
If, on the other hand, he is feeling very secure then he won’t be interested in new information or new ideas.
Drivers and restraints – how they work together
That – as you can see – creates a fascinating picture.
The shaded area is where Hubert is fairly dissatisfied – but also feels reasonably secure. This is when he’s most likely to accept change.
To the right – where he feels almost completely secure – the chances of that become far smaller. If he feels both secure and satisfied (bottom right) then he will obviously be quite happy with things as they are. And If he feels completely secure he will probably become a contented and complacent ‘fat cat’. Even the boxes above, on the right, will be sparsely populated. That’s because new information and new ideas have little appeal to people who feel secure.
The left-hand column poses a different problem. If Hubert is here, even the strongest arguments will fail to cut much ice – because he is incapable of change. The very thought of change will induce the kind of panic that makes a rabbit freeze in the face of oncoming headlights!
So how can we find out where, on this diagram, Hubert feels he is?
And, more importantly, how can we move him to a position where he can and will change?
So you’ve started documenting a process.
Making a record of the best way to do a particular job.
But your first question is bound to be a very obvious one.
How long will it take?
Or, to put it another way: ‘What’s the process for documenting a process?’
And the answer, of course, is; ‘Well, that depends…’
It may not take very long
If it’s a straightforward process, then it won’t take you long to write it down.
So why wouldn’t you take the time to do it?
Suppose that the person who usually does it is away on holiday. Or off sick.
(And yes, that could be you. I know business owners are never ill and never take holidays. But even so…)
Either no one will do it. (Oops…!)
Or someone will do it. Badly. And wrong.
So what’s the choice?
Well, if it’s a planned absence you could take the time to tell someone what to do.
But if you have to do that more than once, you’ll wish you’d written it down!
So – why not take the time when you have it available? (And not while you’re trying to think of everything you need to do before you go away.)
It may take a long time
All right, so it’s a complex process. There’s a lot of detail. Many things that need to be ‘just so’. Perhaps some crucial interactions with other people.
So – if it’s that complex doesn’t it need to be written down?
Think how many opportunities there might be to get something wrong.
Better yet, is it worth thinking about why it’s so complex?
Does it need to be? Could it be simplified? Could it be done better? Or another way?
Time, perhaps, for a review. Or at very least a good, long think while you write everything down.
Because the simple fact is – that simple always works best.
So – how long will it take?
The simple answer? As long as it needs to. But however long it does take, it’ll be worth it for your business.
When you start up a completely new business there’s no business process – as such. There’s only what you decide to do at the time.
Which is fine – to start with, anyway. After all, you need to work out the best way to do all the tasks your business needs.
Some things you’ll have done before, perhaps in another business or in a previous job. In which case you’ll either decide to do those things in the way you’re used to, or to do something completely different. (Perhaps because the way you used to do it never actually worked?)
Even so, at some point you’re going to settle on a specific approach that you’re happy with. That doesn’t mean you won’t review it every so often – after all, what works for a small business may not work for the larger one it will later become. But it’s reasonable to say that there’s now a process in place.
So why would you need to write that process down?
What’s the point? You know what you’re doing, after all!
And that, of course, is precisely the point. You know exactly what you’re doing – but no one else will know unless you tell them. And if it’s not written down, they are far less likely to remember exactly what you said than you are. You’re doing that work all the time, after all. They’re doing it only when you can’t. If you’re off sick, or away on holiday, or at the dentist, there’s a fair chance that some poor soul in your team will try to remember what you told them. And get it horribly wrong.
So what’s the answer?
Unfortunately, the answer is very simple. Take the time. Write it down. Yes, it’s tedious (for you) and there are probably dozens of other things you’d rather be doing, and dozens more clamouring for your attention. But if you don’t, you’ll waste even more time clearing up the mess your team will make of a job you see as simple.
Don’t have a team? Do it anyway. Because one day you’ll be tired, or distracted, and you’ll forget one critical step in the process. And then you’ll spend the rest of the day, or the week, or the month, cursing yourself as you clear up your own mess!
So one final question. How long will it take?
Read some answers in Documenting your process (or – how long does it take?)