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Fine-Tuning A Business

A well-established business runs smoothly, like a fine-tuned machine. The entrepreneur is an inventor, engineer and mechanic all-in-one, and process management is their tool for performance tuning.

Fine-Tuning A Business

This article has been created as a crash course in process implementation for small businesses. It is packed with basic tried-and-true practices, as well as with experiences gained by my clients. With fine-tuned processes, their business enterprises are now running like clockwork. I must admit up front that processes, checklists, spreadsheets and taking a systematic approach to issues are all things that I get a kick out of. Not that I would be overly passionate about processes themselves, but I do enjoy implementing them and watching with satisfaction the results that they bring, despite the initial sense of mistrust.

Processes vs projects

First of all, it is essential to differentiate between processes and projects

  • Projects are unique. They are intended to bring about the desired if uncertain result with the least possible amount of trouble and waste in terms of time and financial resources. Projects can take the form of important orders from clients or, typically, they may be a business’ development projects, such as the launching of a new website, the opening of a new branch, bringing innovations to the services offered, etc. In a way, every project is a step into the unknown. That is why project management, as a form of systematic approach, is used to minimize risks.
  • Processes – as opposed to unique projects – are what recurs all the time. Every day, week, month, quarter and year: e-mails, accounting, client support, posts on blogs and social media networks, data backups, inventory checks, etc. There may be up to dozens of activities intertwined with each other to varying degrees that form the imaginary gears of the business. They are used by freelance professionals as well as by companies, and their mutual harmony determines the overall performance of the business undertaking.

However, making a distinction between projects and processes can also be tricky. A web designer following a certain template will consider the creation of a website to be a routine process while their more ambitious colleague may see each new website to be created as a unique project. Another thing to consider, and not become confused by, is the fact that process implementation is in itself a project while a product innovation can be either a project or a process, if done regularly according to an established timetable.

For now, we can make do with classifying new and extensive objectives as projects while considering repetitive and routine activities to be processes. And processes are what we are going to concern ourselves with here.

Clueless about process management? You’re not alone

In defining processes and projects, we have touched upon an age-old issue. Not even business management is immune to fashionable trends, and so it has happened that while project management has long been enjoying the limelight, awareness of processes and process management has remained negligible – especially among us freelancers and small businesses.

Projects can be found just about anywhere, and there are heaps of educated (and self-educated) project managers. Educational programs, institutions, certifications, and competitions in project management have all been well-established. There are scores of applications available for traditional as well as agile project management (such as Basecamp). There are even project-oriented corporations, such as IBM. Projects dominate the world of business, and by raising awareness in a well-managed way, they have made their mark among freelancers and the general public alike.

Processes (and process management), on the other hand, remain terra incognita, closely guarded by ancient monsters in the form of hideous process diagrams, useless methodologies and software tools from the Desktop Age. And that really is a problem because the ability to master processes is the be all and end all of countless issues in business, not to mention the potential for tremendous increases in productivity.

Many people think that project management and process management are merely a matter of intuition and common sense, but that is a grave mistake. A systematic approach, or reliability for that matter, certainly does not stem from human nature. Not at all. Process (as well as project) management is the opposite of an intuitive approach. A degree of intuition may be involved in the parts of some techniques or approaches, but that does not extend to the system as a whole. The birth is painful and takes hours of mundane labor. The outcome involves several a-ha! moments that gradually give rise to a system and an order.

Embryonic processes

There are a few typical situations that make businesspeople apply one form of process management or another:

  • The product is good, but sales are poor. The entrepreneur has a fairly good idea of where his Achilles heel is and what it costs in terms of lost profits. He is seeking a way to remedy the situation on his own accord. This is the ideal scenario.
  • The complexity of the business undertaking has become overwhelming. Both intuition and past experiences are beginning to fail. The beleaguered entrepreneur loses his direction and grip, lights new fires while attempting to extinguish others, and teeters on the brink of losing the plot altogether. The situation calls for an order to be established, while the tempo is reduced and the entrepreneur’s brain gets some rest.
  • Teamwork is being hampered by failing communication. Individual team members subconsciously rely on one another, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. The inevitable conclusion is not to leave essential issues up to chance but to guard them carefully by means of a suitable process.
  • Necessary records are missing because no one keeps them. Deadlines are met, but only just, and there is no time left for the painstaking work of collecting intelligence. However, information is simply indispensable over the long term.

The existence of any of the above issues may indicate that it is high time to begin implementing suitable processes. If there is a healthy business base and a functional core to the undertaking, that is. Processes are an excellent tool with which to fine-tune one’s business, but they can never turn a bad product into a bestseller, nor fill in serious gaps in marketing or pricing policies. That would require a serious overhaul rather than a sensitive fine-tuning!

So let’s assume then that the core of the business is reasonably healthy. Which process should be implemented first? Or is it better to deploy a comprehensive system covering the complete business?

It would take a superhuman effort to implement processes across the board in one go. Ad hoc implementation, on the other hand, can create more problems than it solves. The correct place to start then is usually with the identification and listing of all repetitive activities. They usually develop through natural routines and habits and normally help to keep the business going.

These latent embryonic processes are seldom sufficiently optimized, but it is necessary to realize their existence, significance and complexity, as well as their degree of maturity. A list of key activities then forms the gross base, which subsequently can be developed further and polished through process management.

The first process

The first process to concern yourself with should be:

  • Not trivial… (there is no need to implement a process to collect mail from the mailbox :)
  • but not too complex either (stock records of thousands of entries would only put you off)
  • straightforward (containing no branch-offs and sub-processes depending on a model or other conditions)
  • used frequently enough (implementation would drag on for an occasional process)
  • significant and beneficial (bringing about an improvement in an area of some concern)
  • in tandem or a team effort (it’s not an indispensable condition but it will help us to delegate that workflow)

The following are examples of common processes that could be developed.

  • A new client (several times a month, depending on demand)
  • Research and posting of news on social media networks (daily)
  • Checking invoices and other financial agenda (monthly)
  • Record-keeping and topping up stock (every other week)
  • Reminders and the discharging of assigned tasks (weekly)
  • Cleaning of premises or office (once a year)
  • Sorting out data on PCs and data backup (monthly)
  • Monitoring of turnover and other statistical data (monthly)
  • Preparation of lecture notes (in line with relevant dates)

In most cases, anything that you would implement as a process would involve activities that you have already been doing anyway. But it is process management that will provide a platform for systematic improvement and integration. A well-described process is easier to delegate, so it can be easily assigned to a colleague or even outsourced completely. Processes boasting top-quality implementation do not rely on a particular person and their memory. They run their desired course under any circumstances and can be performed by different people. Some may do so more conscientiously than others, though…

So much for the introduction and selection of the initial process to be implemented experimentally. Let’s move on now to the crash course in process management proper, in five easy steps:

I. Process mapping

The fact that an activity is performed repeatedly does not mean that it is performed to the same level of quality every single time. There may be a lack of concentration at times, with thoughts wandering elsewhere and steps of the activity skipped as a result. At other times, the activity may not be performed at all. The outcome is an irregular and fluctuating performance. In other words a machine out of tune.

First of all, it is therefore necessary to map the complete process as a sequence of steps or tasks that will lead to the desired outcome. It is possible to make do with a pencil and paper, an Excel spreadsheet, a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive or in Procesoid, where it can be shared with colleagues for record-keeping. Each line in the spreadsheet represents a step towards the completion of the whole process.

The performance of individual steps of the process are recorded already during this stage – usually by adding a column for check marks next to each step and additional notes.

We have, for example, recently mapped an order dispatch process in a table-making workshop. The initial process map contained approximately 40 steps (lines) starting with the initial contact with a customer all the way to completing and dispatching the order. A two-week monitoring process in two warehouses of the same company yielded another 40 lines, including checks of stock levels, labeling, cleaning, and the condition of the tools as well as the buildings.

II. Process analysis

The initial process map is seldom all-encompassing, especially if it involves dozens of steps as in the above examples. Steps that have been omitted before are therefore supplemented with each subsequent iteration of the process. The process map is also simultaneously simplified since it is not meant to be a detailed record down to the minute particulars. It should rather be a smart description of the path ahead, which should be neither vague nor excessively detailed.

The stage of process analysis and monitoring produces a more exact documentation as well as a deeper understanding. The aim is to describe the regular, customary course of the process in question. This usually takes several weeks. Smaller processes can be followed and mapped three times over. More complex ones that involve more people take more time and more questioning. The ideal result is a realistic map of the process sequence, together with a record of its several runs, including a wealth of working notes.

A sad exception to the above rules is provided by processes that are so chaotic and irregular in their embryonic form as to arouse suspicion – whether they are processes at all, let alone if there is any chance of describing them in a clear manner. In such cases, the initial model is in fact a template for what the given process should look like.

III. Process optimization

Already in the mapping and analysis stage of the process, major gaps and areas that could be improved within the process usually come to light. Optimization then aims to determine:

  • What the process should ideally look like
  • What parts can be simplified
  • What risks are involved and how they can be prevented
  • How often the process should take place:
    • Every day, every week, month, every other week, etc.
    • No more than X days, weeks, months since the previous instance (flexible alternative)
    • As required (process triggered by a specified event or impulse)

At this stage, the process becomes a model, subject to tweaking. Effort is being made to identify areas where the process can be accelerated, made more efficient, supplemented or otherwise suitably adjusted. The process is modified either gradually or – if the existing process proves to be too flawed and unsuitable – built anew from the ground up. In either case, it is an experiment that may or may not yield an improvement. Each subsequent run of the process thus requires thorough documentation and evaluation in order to detect any improvements objectively.

An example of process improvement is a process optimization to increase profit through the introduction of a premium option providing customers with a choice of at least two alternatives. In my experience, whenever this improvement was introduced correctly into the order process, there has been a distinct increase in the turnover generated by high-value customers.

Another way to tell that process optimization is going well is to see that the process is not swelling but, on the contrary, is assuming a simpler, cleaner form of a sequence of critical nodes. Below is our report of a comprehensive weekly process of customer support for the largest freelancer support group in the Czech Republic, after a few years of tweaking. Notice the highlighted issue, the notes and the monthly sub-process at the end: It takes no more than a glance to see whether our customer support is working as it should or whether my intervention is called for somewhere:

A simple report of a relatively complex process of customer support in Procesoid A simple report of a relatively complex process of customer support in Procesoid

IV. Tackle it head on!

Process optimization may look almost idyllic, as does the resulting report, while in fact it’s nothing short of serious struggle. Established habits are a straitjacket. Untying it means unleashing some amount of madness, and it will meet with stiff resistance. Optimization cannot follow a set path. Unless you manage a car-making operation, that is. And the worst part is that it calls for experience, and plenty of it, combined with ample time before you can claim victory.

That’s among the reasons for starting with one, fairly simple process, the optimization of which will provide valuable experience. Another important factor is the involvement of a mentor or process consultant. There are scores of clever tricks and shortcuts that can, on the one hand, prove to be almost miraculously efficient but on the other demand handling with great care. Not everyone is eager to take part in process implementation. Some may just resent having to fill in spreadsheets, others feel they are too busy with existing tasks, and still others will be averse to having someone looking over their shoulder. Some will want to distance themselves completely.

Implementing more complex processes across work teams thus often involves a great deal of diplomacy with all due respect shown to everyone affected. While the outcome of process optimization should be satisfactory to all, that does not mean that there won’t be hiccups or some ruffled feathers along the way. These instances call for a process restart using its improved version until all of the rough edges are smoothed out and the obstacles have been overcome.

V. Test by delegation

Correct process implementation manifests itself by the process actually being helpful, saving both time and money. It should run smoothly in the predefined interval and go through all of the constituent tasks, something that can be subsequently verified in the records.

However, this still does not necessarily mean that the process is also properly documented, as the person carrying it out may be relying on their institutional memory, thereby making the process still too reliant on their person. The true test of process implementation thus comes with its delegation to another person, with the necessary training provided.

Such delegation is bound to highlight serious gaps, especially in cases when the original customary activity and the newly implemented process were performed by the same person. Successful delegation leads to reinforcement of a process that becomes universal and enables full substitutability within a team. That will prove especially handy come the time of holidays, flu season or any unexpected departures from the team.

The crash course could conclude with a successful delegation of a process. It is, however, my habit on this blog to always try to dig a bit deeper below the surface. So I’m adding five extra chapters for experienced process professionals:

VI. Process evaluation

A successfully implemented process can be optionally enhanced by an evaluation layer. In other words, while the process is being executed and recorded by one person another will be evaluating the execution and adding their findings to the records.

The value of evaluation lies not in nitpicking and hair-splitting but in providing useful feedback to be utilized in further improving the process. The human factor plays a significant role here since routines that tend to settle in after a period of time often lead to the failure to notice minor flaws. This is where evaluation can come to the rescue, by picking up on such oversights.

The evaluator enjoys the advantage of a certain distance from the process, in terms of both space and time. For example, if you outsource the administration of your social media networks and have a process implemented for it, you can address another specialist, asking them to have a look at the posts perhaps twice a month and to recommend further improvements.

VII. Reporting

A well-established and correctly outsourced process can be automated to such a degree that the process owner merely receives an e-mail with a link to the relevant report and a brief specification of recommended areas of focus. This is where shared spreadsheets stored on Google Drive or Procesoid will again come in handy, with their notifications and collaboration features. It’s simple, functional and saves time.

Mature processes can run so smoothly that the owner receives their regular weekly/monthly report and only has to intervene just a few times a year – if at all. Such a situation may arise, for example, when a significant problem gets reported or if an evaluator suggests useful adjustments.

VIII. Sub-processes

Sub-processes are constituent branches of the main process. They can form fixed elements of the main process or be triggered by specific conditions. The main process can, for example, determine that if a new client is less than transparent, stricter conditions should be applied to secure the payment along with a few other extra steps.

Independent professionals and small businesses seldom revel in process branching; they usually make do with a simple linear form. And that’s good, as process branching inevitably means process diagrams, modelling languages and complex methodologies of process management, which are more suitable for university lecture notes. There would be no place left for beautiful simplicity!

IX. Meta–process

Of course, the implementation of the first process is not the end of process management. As soon as three or four other processes are added, there arises a need for their mutual harmonization within a consistent whole, or system. This integration of all processes into an entrepreneur’s routine time-management forms a superordinate meta-process, which can also be optimized. Plus, there is nothing to stop you from integrating in the same overview outputs from processes to which you are linked (e.g. via your clients).

I freely admit that a meta-process looks suspicious – but only as long as you don’t realize the need to have one. I’ve come across three different forms of meta-processes: 1) fully automated reports, 2) spreadsheets containing all processes, and 3) textual summaries. Regardless of the actual form chosen, a meta-process creates an easy, long-term overview, especially when individual processes run smoothly and without hiccups.

X. Process audit

Any component that has been operating reliably for an extended time may soon start lagging behind the rest of the business. The last method to be mentioned in this article must inevitably be the process audit and load scaling. The audit is done simply by reopening the audited process, adding new steps and repeating the process optimization – tuning the machine all over again. Every process is designed for a specific load. If the load increases, the process’ parameters must be adjusted as part of the audit in order to meet the new requirements with reasonable safety margin.

100 shoes repaired in a day? No problem for the modern-day Bata! ;-)

Checklists everywhere you look

Simplified process management does not stand and fall with complex diagrams or specialized applications that are mostly unavailable on the market anyway. Its foundation lies in simple apps like Procesoid, spreadsheets and bullet-point lists, or checklists, as one of the most powerful tools of the information age.

Should you wish to learn more, I can recommend Checklist Manifesto. It is among the easiest books on the implementation of a simple processes to read. In my own practice, I’ve regularly encountered many of the issues described by the book’s author. Most people try to steer clear of checklists and processes in general. But given enough time to learn how to think within the process realm, people usually begin to appreciate their value. A well-designed process reduces the cognitive load, prevents mistakes, and provides extra room for enjoying one’s work.

Robert Vlach, October 15, 2018

Business consultant, writer and EUpreneur. Proud founder of Procesoid and Na volne noze — one of the largest national freelance communities in Europe

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