Why small companies need to think about processes

Meet Jim the baker, who could be a kind of older uncle to Bob the builder. Jim is a role model baker that is featured in a “case study” on the website of the ISO. And he does everything right. According to one caption in the article,  Jim the Baker follows a clear pathway to integrated MSS (management system standards) implementation and, by applying sound management supported by MSSs, his business expands to provide catering services for large organizations.

Implementing ISO 9001 or 14001 from the start might be a tall order for most start-ups. But I agree that including systems and processes in your strategy is the way to prepare for success.

Why processes?

Think about sales systems: communicating the need for a sales & customer service system will lead you to answer questions like: how is the sales process going to look like? What kind of data points do I want to collect? What will the main channels of communication be? You will not be able to answer all questions right away and it is a good thing to experiment with different solutions. Make sure that you don’t lock yourself in too soon. A simple Excel sheet with some conditional formatting will be enough CSMing for many start-ups during the first few months. If you want a web app, make sure it provides export functions via universally accepted standards like CVS or XML just in case you need to switch to a different solution later on. Keep your mind open and take as many notes about your chores as possible. These notes about all the little gremlins, hick-ups and screw-ups will provide valuable insight in where the process is still troubled. The same is true for your accounting, your HR, etc. If your company grows – and you want it to grow – then you will need processes and standards defined for all of them.

Michael Gerber recommends an even more vigorous approach for every small business owner in his book “The E-Myth”: do every job in your start-up yourself first, starting from the bottom and work your way up. Note down all the necessary tasks and qualifications. Use these to define the processes and responsibilities for every position until you reach the top. The result will be a set of documents with clearly defined processes, procedures and check-lists that help you run your business. If you feel overwhelmed, look for a person new to your ranks or an external consultant. They will provide a fresh perspective on how things could be done.

Path to success for small businesses

Why is this especially important for start-ups and small businesses? Many people tend to think that business processes are for large corporations with thousands of employees and a legion of consultants at their disposal. Companies with a war chest. But the opposite is true. Big companies are the ones that tend to suffer more from byzantine approval procedures and strict guidelines. That is why they are forced to spend a big amount of money fixing these problems. If you consider processes and standards in the beginning, you can minimize problems in the future. Your company is still young, eager and flexible. Changes can be applied easily and quickly. So make sure to use this window of opportunity and to prepare for the moment when you roll out a mobile-based sales tool or train ranks of customer-service staff.

Another plus for small businesses with restricted cash-flow is the better allocation of resources. If you got your delivery routes worked out early or have your sales-force following a tested process, you will be leveraging tools that many companies only think about at a later stage, when problems arise. I remember the example of a client explaining why an online tool to manage their developers’ time did not work out: they scratched it when the time slots collided whith reality and needed to be changed frequently. But in the end, the meeting and work times had to be arranged somwhow. The result was that all employees resorted to multiple, hard-to monitor channels which led to confusion, wasted time and a lot of uncoordinated meetings.

So take advantage of your unique position as a small business owner! You know you want to expand (in sales, offices, staff, etc.). Prepare to scale up!

When you already did, please share your story in the comments. It would be great to get more insights!

TED talk: the key to success? Grit

I found this wonderful TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth that sounds so true. It is not the talent or the intelligence that is able to predict success but “grit”, the ability to live life as a marathon and not as a sprint. And it also very well resounds with the impression I have about highly achieving individuals: It helps to have a demanding hobby where you train your brain to never stop and advance just for the sake of advancing. People who have this mindset will be able to handle almost any challenge they encounter.

Take your marks! Swimlane charts for processes

Questions that always come up once you identified the seperate tasks in a process are: How do I visualize this? How do I make sure that it is in a logical (or at least suitable) order? How can I show this to others and make them understand the connections?

While there may be a lot of different ways to do this, one method has taken hold in the process management community: The swimlane diagramm

What is a swimlane diagramm?

A swimlane diagramm is basically a flowchart with one additional attribute: The tasks are ordered according to roles in seperate rows (or columns) that represent the different roles. These are the swimlanes and it is totally irrelevant wether they are horizontal or vertical. For my brain it seems I can follow the horizontal arrangement better. But the vertical arrangement has the advantage of being easier to lay out on an A4 page. Some people also prefer the vertical swimlanes because it resembles a checklist that can be used in everyday process execution.

Above you see an example of a horizontal swimlane chart for a simplified hiring process in a bigger SME. Note that the horizontal lanes are labeled according to the role that is responsible for the different tasks.

This chart was created with the free software yEd graph editor. But swimlane diagramms are not a matter of dedicated software. There are a number of Powerpoint templates out there that include all necessary boxes and connectors. In a team environment a simple whiteboard with stickers is probably the most flexible and practical way to establish lanes and order tasks. And don’t forget: there is still pen and paper to do it!

Sample Hiring Process-Paper-V1


Now that you identified and documented your tasks, understand what a swimchart diagramm is and got your weapon of choice to put it down, how do you actually write one of these things?

Creating a swimlane chart

A swimlane starting point is always a round shape that represents a trigger event for the process. It is a good idea to also immediatly determine which event defines the end of the process and put it right at the end of the diagramme in the according swimlane. Use a round shape for this one as well. The seperate activities in between are normally displayed as rectangular boxes. Decision points are represented by diamond shapes. After you identified start and end points and put in all tasks and decisions you need to connect the seperate fields with arrows. The general rule is that there is only one connector coming in and one going out from every rectangular box. Decision diamonds have one arrow going in and (usually) two going out, representing a yes or no/true or false decision. In many cases a no/false will initiate a feedback loop back to an earlier stage of the process. But there are also situations where such decisions would mean cancelling the process or a initiating a different process.

To summarize:
  • swimlanes: rows or columns labeled according to functions
  • start, end point: round shape (One arrow coming out)
  • task: rectangular box (one connector coming in, one going out)
  • decision: diamond shape (one connector going in, two going out)
  • connectors: arrows between the boxes

You can see all these elements in the example above. This is a simplified process, though. Complex processes in large organizations or for webbased services might contain more than a dozen swimmlanes and hundreds of nodes. Such diagramms might require the depiction of further aspects like material flow or data base queries.

If you want to learn more about swimlane charts, there are hundreds of tutorials on the web. Or just get in touch with me and I will answer your questions personally.

Please remember one thing:

You have to do that first! When you are fairly confident that you got all the necessary information, then it is time to map it out in a swimlane diagramme. And while mapping out you will most certainly stumble upon areas in the process where information is still lacking or unclear. But don’t consider this a set back! Instead, think of it like this: you just started to actually work on your processes and not let the processes determine your work!

Another important point to keep in mind is that while trying to gather as much information as possible about your processes, not all of it needs to be integrated into your swimlane chart. Don’t confuse the different functions of process maps, check-lists and procedures. (See a general introduction to the differences here)

Follow this blog as I will give some tips on the first steps when identifying and documenting processes in another post.


Tags vs. folders

Tagging is one of the most important productivity hacks that modern communication technology has to offer.

And yet, it takes some time to grasp the vast opportunities of this habit. Tagging is also one of the most important points I talk about in my trainings. It took me a while to make the switch myself and I don’t know how many hours I wasted by doing it late and by doing it not right in the beginning.

So with this piece I hope to help people make the switch from a folder-hierarchy focused approach to tagging digital information.

As a first step I want to explain the difference between tagging and storing files in seperate folders. And this difference is very simple:

So the smart thing to do is file everything in one or a small number of folders and assign a number of distinctive tags to it. Sounds simple? It is. But the ramnifications are enormous! Just look at the illustration on top of this post.

The one document can only go into one file folder (or you save multiple copies in different folders which complicates version management). But the document has 4 different labels (tags) attached: Client X, year 2014, Quotation, Project A. So if you are looking for the document in your file folder structure you will have to click through a hierarchy of folders (probably something like Clients > Client X> 2014> Communication > Quotations> Project A and only then you have reached the actual folder where the document is filed. This is the reason why filing had developed into a science of its own in the 20th century and new employees had to spend hours learning the filing structure of their employer before being able to work efficiently. Now, all of this is still ok as long as you are familiar with the context of the particular file. The situation is totally different if you are looking for a file that has not been touched for three years or if you want to re-use sections from a number of quotations for a new document. In this case you are likely to work your way through a lot of folders before being able to retrieve all the information you need.

Now imagine you are using tags instead of a folder hirarchy. You would just input the terms Client X, Quotation and Project A and the software would lead you right to the file you were searching for. Replace Project A with 2014 and you get a list of all the quotations for that particular client in 2014.

Potential pitfalls

Pretty neat, isn’t it? There are a number of potential pitfalls, though.

1) One of the most important issues is that your tags need a structure as well. If you just tag every note as you feel like when you are at it you might end up with a number of related tags like lead, prospect, opportunity or response, answer, reply, etc. In such a situation you will waste a lot of time thinking about which one you used for a particular file.

2) To be really effective, when searching for tagged files, the software needs to able to include more than one tag at every search. Think about our example above: if you are only able to search for one tag, you would end up with either all quotations, all files from 2014 or all files related to client X, etc. as search results

3) There seems to be a psychological barrier to using tags as well. Studies show that many people prefer putting a file in a single folder because a) it is faster than attaching multiple labels and b) it gives them a feeling of this item being put out of the way. The last point is most obvious in the obsession with a “zero inbox”, i.e. the pursuit of placing all processed mail in a specific folder outside the general inbox in order to get a feeling of accomplishment. Whoever is interested in this cognitive aspect of filing vs tagging might find some valuable insights in this article.

4) Not every software that you use and creates files will support tagging. At least the implimentation of tagging is very different in different operating systems and software. Also naming is not consistent. What is called tag in one application might be called category or label in another one.

Tagging in different operating systems and applications

See the following links for tips on tagging in some of the most popular operating systems and desktop applications:

Tagging of files in Windows 7 or higher.

Tagging files in Yosemite.

One of the most important everyday application where we handle a lot of different items are email clients. If you are an Outlook user, you will have to use categories and you can find some insights on how to put them to use here.

It seems like native tagging is not possible in the Apple email app but there is a 3rd party plugin called MailTag.

Here is how to use tags in Thunderbird.

Fortunately, many of the most popular SaaS applications (like Gmail, basecamp, evernote, insight.ly, etc.) support some sort of tagging by now. Use your favourite search engine to find tutorials on how to use tags in the SaaS application of your choosing.

I myself am an avid user of Evernote and this is where I was converted into a “tagger”. The obvious advantage is that you can put almost every file into Evernote and tag it in a universal environment where it can be found easily via a powerful filtering and search function. And you can share these files (or to be precise: the notes that represent or contain the files) with other Evernote users.

It goes without saying that using the same set of tags for files and emails will save a lot of your brainspace and time. Many people have shared their tagging setup online (just as other people did with their file folder setup) and it is not easy to give any specific recommendation. But I found that most people who really dig into it end up with something that resembles the Getting things Done system. A powerful example on how to implement GTD in a digital environment is “The Secret Weapon” that aims at feeding all your files, emails and notes into Evernote where they can be tagged and processed consitently.

Converting to a tagging approach instead of placing every file into one specific folder has saved me a lot of time. I hope that this blog post inspired you to do the same. Or have you already made your switch? Or maybe even tried it and moved back to file folders for some reason? Let me know and share with others to discuss the pros and cons of the two approaches!

Happy tagging!