Originally published on Inc Magazine’s Process Playbook column by Chris Ronzio
It’s easy to get caught up in the sea of software systems. Start with your step-by-step process long before you search for the system.
Everyone says you should work on your systems and processes, right?
That’s so vague, and that’s exactly the reason why so many companies struggle to make meaningful process working “on the business”, year after year. Let me help to clarify these confusing terms, and give you the direction that you need to make a dent this year.
The “system” is the tool that you use to get the job done. It could be a big piece of machinery, but for most of us, it is the different software tools that your company runs on.
“Processes” are the sequence of steps that you and your team take to do the work — the actions, regardless of the system. The problem is, too many entrepreneurs start with the system.
Instead of focusing on how you manage a client project, you focus on how the project management tool works.
You can get lost in a sea of software, and end up jumping ship from one to the next chasing features that may or may not matter to your business. But, if you understand your process first, it’s like going to the grocery store with a list, and not an empty stomach.
I was working with a retail store once that used spreadsheets to manage their inventory, credit card terminals for each sale, PayPal for online transactions, handwritten sheets for their packing lists, and a bloated database tool for customer information. Instead of stepping back and looking at the business as a whole, they solved one problem at a time with another software, creating a complicated mess of their operations.
It shouldn’t be so hard. Whatever industry you’re in, here’s how to fine tune your process first to make sure you’re investing in something that can stick.
Map your process.
Break out the sticky notes! I’ve banned those little yellow clutter-causers from my office, except for when we’re working on processes. Then, we break them out of their special hiding place and go nuts!
If you don’t have sticky notes, use a whiteboard or a blank sheet of paper, and draw each linear step in your product fulfillment or service delivery process. Each step (or sticky) should represent a significant step in your process. So, combine small things like “open this URL” and “go to this page” and “enter this password” into something broader like “log into online store.”
Your core company process should stretch from how you attract prospects, close a sale, onboard the customer, deliver the product or service, collect payment, and and continue to engage the customer.
Find your bottlenecks.
The simple act of writing out the steps of your process is bound to surface some inefficiency. Where in your process are there bottlenecks — or slow downs — today? Where are there too many handoffs where information or tasks could flow more seamlessly from one person or department to another?
Now, you don’t need to fix your entire process in one sitting. That isn’t the point. But, you do want to identify where you have some work to do. These inefficiencies or areas for improvement could be supplemented or solved with the right system. You are building your shopping list.
Become a ‘manual’ master.
A client hired me once wanting to build a custom software for a new way to facilitate meetings. The idea was full of assumptions about how the users would behave, and what problems they were trying to solve.
Instead, I suggested that he use index cards to replicate the functionality manually, and offline, for a full month before we quote out the software. That way he could validate some assumptions before investing a dime in a custom software project. The idea was dead a weak later, and he saved a lot of money.
Similarly, think of the software tools and systems that you invest in a way to improve the efficiency of your manual process, not a gamble on a brand new, untested way to work.
Scale with a system.
Now, with a proven manual process and a wish list of requirements, you are ready to go system shopping.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the thousands of tools available. If you’re software shopping, check out review sites like Capterra an G2Crowd, or maker communities like Product Hunt to see how each system is differentiated before diving into demos.
With hardware, consider renting a device before making a big purchase, or talking to another customer that is successfully using the equipment.
The system you ultimately select should increase your capacity by eliminating bottlenecks and making your proven process more efficient. Your process shows you generally how to get from point A to point B, like a path through the woods. As you test that process, the “path in the woods” gets more and more defined, and perhaps you invest a little in clearing the leaves and branches, or building stairs on a steep hill.
When do decide to build a highway from point A to point B — your system — you should be confident in the path, and eager to increase the traffic down the route.