Once upon a time, Sam Carpenter’s book Work the System was the talk of small business consultants. I read it in 2008 when it came out. I never cared for it. I liked Sam’s premise, but his execution of documentation of the business was narrative-centric (as in documenting your processes in Word documents).
Here’s where we disagree. His book should have been chock-full of checklists and a master checklist linked to every major process in the business. Instead of talking about it, I will show you a page from my simplistic playbook.
I can’t prove this, but I sense that growth-minded entrepreneurs dislike bureaucracy. I do too, the wrong kind, that is. But can a business legitimately grow without some basic structure backed by quality processes that are consistent in follow-through? Just ask the restaurant general manager at your next dining experience, where it has taken a few years for those establishments to nail down their cadence of exceptional delivery and packaging for their patrons.
My consulting focus is PRA™ or planning, reporting, and analysis. My favorite CEOs enjoy this part of the business once they get up to speed. However, nearly 100% of the time, I encounter poor accounting and administrative practices stemming from a culture that does not prioritize efficiency, quality, and speed on its backstage.
When accounting and administration are a mess, PRA™ is next to impossible to roll out. When PRA™ is next to impossible to roll out, growth of any kind will be met with frustration and numerous stumbling blocks. Can you relate?
Start With a Master Checklist
Circa 2005 or 2006, I was getting frustrated with the owners I was working with because they all had a mess backstage. It was about that time I created a generic master checklist broken down by daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual tasks in accounting and administration.
I also included columns for the ownership of each major task (one major task should be backed by its own checklist that any 17-year-old could carry out). Occasionally, I’ll include columns for Mastery and Future Improvement Projects.
If the above seems abstract, take a look at a simple version that I’ve stripped down from a client that I worked with in Columbia, Missouri. At the time, this $13 million professional services firm was always behind in its administrative duties.
On my first day on the job, we had $400k in past-due accounts that were the fault of their own because they had no consistent process to follow up on past-due accounts.
In short, they had an OPs manual because a consultant taught them they needed one ten years earlier. But it was in narrative format, and it was never used.
I may come across as arrogant, but I perceive my system is simpler:
Simple Checklist Design
“Tammy, can I have your checklist for entering fixed assets into Dynamics GP?” While that question happened a long time ago, it seems like yesterday because I vividly recall the 33 bullet points comprising her checklist. I couldn’t read it. But heck, she had it documented, and she could cross this requirement off her list as her company prized documented workflows and checklists.
In the video, I shared a different way of structuring checklists. The example I used had 18 steps. But were you able to read it easily?
If so, let me leave you with a refresher on how to structure checklists. Obviously, feel free to take my idea and personalize it for your business.
- All checklists should have a clear name, the checklist owner, and the last revision date.
- Bucketize the three to five steps in a process. If your process has over five big buckets of work, that’s far too many. For me, this part of workflow analysis becomes a game. I try to see if a bucket here and there can be removed without jeopardizing the quality of the outcome.
- There can only be one owner of each work bucket within a process.
- List the steps to be performed in order, the easy part of this checklist. Don’t forget to add screenshots as needed. I’d even go so far as to include videos or audio if needed to augment or clarify your process.
- List the standards or values of this process. For AP, I want every invoice entered by 10:00 a.m. each morning with zero errors. I want my vendors paid at least one day before the due date. Since I value constant improvement, that mindset should be on yellow alert during times of frustration when working on a process–that means it’s time for improvement.
- Include a link back to your master checklist. An example of a master checklist was included in the video.
We Don’t Worship Checklists, But We Value Them
I have a natural tendency to over-engineer a process or workflow. That’s why I want a sounding board when implementing a new process.
Checklists are necessary tools to carry out a job to be done. The way to think about checklists is to think like Clayton Christensen and his Jobs to Be Done Framework.
For each process lacking documentation of any kind that desperately needs a checklist, complete the following question:
The job to be done by this checklist is ___________, so that __________.
That last blank is critical. This ensures we’re not just going through the motions in filling out the checklist.
In our AP example, the job of this checklist is to ensure every approved vendor invoice is entered into our accounting system completely, accurately, and in a timely manner so that we know our financial position at all times, which supports our cash management and forecasting system.
I’m a PRA™ expert, not a checklist guru. Yet, I have dozens and dozens of examples. If you are tripping up in this part of your business, don’t hesitate to find a sounding board. I happen to know one very well.
Epilogue: Remembering Clayton Christensen
Earlier, I mentioned the academic and author Clayton Christensen. I never met him, but he was a great man and missed by many. I hope you love this video as much as the many times I’ve watched it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Your video appears to include checklists using Excel. Is that the best choice of tools?
A. It depends. One of my favorite clients in Indiana has about 80-plus documented processes for his PT clinics. His master checklist, like mine above, is located in Google Sheets. Each checklist mentioned links to another detailed checklist similar to the one above. Focus on function, not form. The goal is mastery of all backstage work. Then, find a toolset that works for your organization.
If you prefer a software-centric solution for checklists, I’ve used Process.st for one startup because it was best for their situation. Other ideas include Smartsheet, Airtable, SmartSuite, and Notion.
Remember the bigger goal–mastery of backstage and frontstage workflows. Software selection should not slow you down. Spreadsheets work if you maintain a master list updated and maintained by an overall process manager.
Q. You mentioned video. How would that work?
A. I’m no expert, but let’s say you have a backstage process on the plant floor. Grab an iPhone or Android and start recording and talking. I’ve hosted videos on Vimeo, Screencast, Bunny.net (my favorite), Loom, and a few others. Do your own due diligence to find the best place to house your videos. Don’t forget Amazon S3, either.
For software-centric workflows, use a screen-capturing tool. I’ve been using Camtasia for years, but do your own due diligence for such tools. When you finish the edits, upload to one of the hosts I previously mentioned or one you like better.
Q. Where do I get started?
A. First, take a deep breath. Give yourself 90 days to complete 80 percent of this work. Start with the workflows where there is constant chaos. Observe, document, then test the new checklist. The desired outcome is never the completed checklist. The desired outcome is muscle memory or mastery of the job to be done. I would also look hard at the front stage where customers are served. We want happy and delighted customers at all times.
Q. I have about 55 employees in my SaaS business. Can I have one person in charge of this big project?
A. I probably sound like an attorney. It depends. Do they love doing this type of work? Are they good at it? Do they have a 7, 8, or 9 Follow Thru on their Kolbe A™ (my strong opinion)? Also, the job to be done is not just checklist design. As mentioned earlier, the job to be done is a fantastic backstage that supports a front stage that’s yearning to grow. The Process Manager you are describing has to be great at working with people along with training and experimenting with new processes. By the way, here is a video by someone I admire regarding Follow Thru.
Q. You mentioned mastery. We’re not there yet. How do I make that happen?
A. There is probably one of several reasons. Let’s start at the top. A company’s culture s a direct reflection of its leadership. That’s an absolute truth in small business. Are you making workflow mastery (especially on the front stage) a priority? You can’t just talk about it; you must model it yourself.
Next, the end game is not going through the motions of creating a checklist. The objective is muscle memory. When the first checklist is created, there should be at least a 20 percent improvement in productivity because the process manager has found inefficiencies. That means new work or a slightly-revised workflow. Habits are hard to break. Accordingly, I’m curious if training under the new process was skipped or glossed over. Practice and experimentation are critical in workflows.
Finally, if mastery is still an issue, have an outsider observe the process under question seeking the root causes of the problems. That step alone should flesh out the weaknesses hindering mastery.
Did I miss a question? If so, ping me on LinkedIn.