Wherever you are today with respect to growing your business or organization, developing systems and processes represents a crucial part of setting the conditions for success. Because it's so important to establish a robust foundation before your company explodes with new business, this article offers seven ideas for systematizing your organization. Before your company can respond to rapid shifts or prepare for expansion, you will want to look around for leaks and cracks. Ask, "How do communications and work products flow from suppliers, within the organization, and to customers? Who hands off what to whom? Is this ideal or should we optimize processes?" The answers may reveal areas where no methods exist, where methods are still too vaguely defined to cement, and where critical gaps reside that should be sealed before everyone can perform effectively on a grander scale. For example, it might be comfortable in the early stages of a business for people to communicate very informally. However, informal communication by itself cannot support a consistent way of operating once more people become involved. If you plan for growth by systematizing as soon as possible, you'll lay a solid framework and avoid an "implosion" later. Another major consideration is the amount of irreplaceable intellectual property that might be stored in the heads of your employees or contractors. Contributors to your organization might ebb and flow without your retaining a fraction of what they know. Can you afford to let them walk away without capturing their wisdom in your company's knowledgebase? Can people go on vacation without causing a standstill? ------------------------------------------------ Take Time to Do a Little "Task Triage" ------------------------------------------------ Look at each of the applicable areas of your business, such as: . Administration . Project management . Production management . Information technology . Quality assurance . Marketing/sales . Customer support . Other functional activities In each area -- and even more importantly, across areas -- you'll find possibilities for streamlining, strengthening, and documenting your processes. Many processes will begin in one functional area and continue through other areas before completion. The handoffs between people or functions often represent the weakest links because of the possibilities for miscommunication, bottlenecks, delays, and data entry errors. So be especially alert for those areas! ------------------------------------------------ Seven Things to Consider When Systematizing Your Business ------------------------------------------------ As you proceed to develop and fine-tune your processes, consider the following. 1. How mature are your processes? Especially while in a startup mode, many of your methods might be in a "mushy," formative state. It can take time to develop a repeatable pattern for accomplishing work. Even if your business has operated for a while, new activities will inevitably emerge. Consider whether each is mature enough to justify formal documentation, or whether less formal "desk instructions" would suffice in the meantime. 2. Can you streamline processes before documenting them? Before documenting your processes: -- Evaluate whether all activities are truly necessary. -- Consider where activities can be simplified, automated, or eliminated. -- Research where obstacles to productivity exist. -- Ponder all areas with the greatest potential for waste, errors, mistakes, and hidden drains on your bottom line. -- Think about how streamlining each area would improve your profitability, customer satisfaction, and internal effectiveness, and prioritize your efforts accordingly. 3. Who should document your systems? People often don't have the "extra" time to document their own tasks, since they already spend all of their time doing their regular jobs. Another option might involve "job shadowing," where an intern or new-hire continually observes, discusses, and documents what an expert performer does. This relieves the expert of that burden, while providing a way for the intern to learn and contribute value immediately. Alternatively, you could hire a procedure specialist, and if a client engagement benefits enough to pay for it, that's ideal! The intern or specialist also can recommend ideas for improvement that surface from a having a fresh perspective. All resulting procedures would be fine-tuned with the expert's help and become part of the company's information library. 4. How can you go about systematizing? Begin by asking, "How do we [...]?" and then fill in the blank with the activity you wish to systematize. Diagram all steps required to complete that process, across all functional areas. You may discover that if you routinely perform certain steps in a given order, those are good candidates for step-by-step procedures. In areas where the steps vary based on the circumstances, a list of guidelines might be more appropriate. If you are able to automate procedures, consider using electronic support systems. 5. What types of documentation should you produce? -- Systems, at the highest level, represent collections of related processes. -- Processes, depicted as diagrams or process maps, provide overviews of tasks that transform inputs into outputs by adding value during each task step. -- Procedures cover the step-by-step, "how-to" details for performing task steps. Procedures might appear in training materials, job aids, and work instructions. Similarly, guidelines show what rules to follow in more variable situations. 6. What can you delegate or outsource? If you have designed your processes to be easy to follow and repeatable, so that others can produce the same result each time, you are ready to delegate. And if you can hand off to someone with less expertise without losing speed or quality, hurray! 7. What can you continuously improve? Always be alert for ways to eliminate, automate, or simplify every activity that you perform routinely. Your time is valuable, so your goal should be to spend time on the activities that will contribute most to your company's profitability. For every step, ask, "What value does this add? What's a faster, less complicated way of getting this done? Can a different view of this system expose new possibilities for streamlining?" In conclusion, systematizing your business may seem like an overwhelming effort. But if you prioritize the areas to simplify and document according to what will have the greatest impact on your bottom line, and enlist outside help, you'll be well on the road to success.