The Importance of Established Processes in Small Business

As a small business, you may have started with only a few employees and everything you did was manageable. You probably handled service calls and inventory on your own with little to no issues. But as your business grows, and you hire additional personnel, managing the everyday tasks can suddenly become complicated. You may have many field service techs, a few inventory clerks, several office administrators, etc. You’re likely to find everyone has their own way of performing the same task, and that can often become a problem.

John may receive 10 purchase orders and process them individually, receiving one and immediately moving the parts to stock. But Bill may receive 10 purchases orders and not put any parts away until the end of the day. If you look in your inventory how do you know where to find the parts? In their stock locations or on Bill’s desk? Now is the time to establish documented processes for your everyday tasks to ensure consistency.
Established processes can ensure that every employee performs a given task in the same manner, following the same steps, and achieving the same result. They will improve accuracy and efficiency and overall can streamline your business operations.

Inventory Management Process

The first step is to identify the tasks that require an established process. Obviously, there are many things you do every day that don’t require a process. It won’t make any difference if you turn on your computer and then hang up your coat while the person next to you hangs up their coat and then turns on their computer. However, if you’re both scheduling service calls, both of you should be following the same steps to ensure accuracy. As a rule of thumb, a process should be established if more than one person performs the same task or if a task affects more than one person or department. For example, you would want a process for your field service techs to follow when performing and documenting service calls to ensure a customer always has a consistent service. You’d also want a process for your lone inventory tech to follow when receiving products, as the status of inventory affects the sales department as well as the accounting department. Every business will have different processes to document.

Once you’ve identified your tasks that require established processes it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get down to business. Start with a quick overview of what the task is attempting to accomplish. Are you receiving inventory, performing a service call, filing documents? Let’s say we’re having a tech perform a service call. What are the general steps that need to be performed? The tech may have to review their calls for the day to establish an efficient route, contact the customer to establish a time to arrive, gather documentation for the equipment to be worked on, and possibly request maintenance parts from inventory. Once on site they’ll need to discuss the problem with the customer, test and diagnose the equipment being serviced, order parts, schedule a return visit, and log the work they performed either on paper or in their service program. Write these down as your primary steps to be further analyzed. Review them and if needed, rearrange the order of steps always keeping efficiency and accuracy in mind.

Next, you’ll need to look at the primary steps and break them down further into secondary steps. Let’s use the example of the first step being the tech must review their calls to establish an efficient route. Can this be broken down further? Are there additional factors that affect the establishment of an efficient route? Does a customer have restricted business hours? Is the customer in a critical situation where they need to be serviced first? Write down the individual steps and determine their priority. A customer with a critical situation would take precedence over a customer who closes in the afternoon. If there’s not a critical call then perhaps the first call would be the one furthest from the techs starting location, working their way back towards home as the day progresses. Write down these secondary steps and if needed, rearrange their order. Repeat this process for every primary step until they’ve all been broken down into secondary steps.

You should now have your basic process written out in a somewhat orderly rough draft. Review the process and at each step ask yourself:
• Is this the most efficient way to perform this step?
• Is any other person or department affected by this step?
• Does performing this step at this time cause additional steps or questions?

After you’ve gone over everything it’s time to put it to the initial test. Perform the task following the steps you’ve written out. Watch for problem areas where perhaps there’s an inefficiency or a misstep. You may find you need to add steps, remove steps, or change the order of steps. Every time you make a change, rewrite the process and test it from the beginning again. Continue to test and change the process until you’re certain you’ve made it as efficient and accurate as possible with the minimal chance of error.

At this point, you’ll want to officially document the process. There are multiple ways to do this using numbered steps in a document or a spreadsheet, or you can create a flowchart to document the process. The flowchart is my personal favorite. They’re logical in that you move from one block to another. Your path through the flowchart can change by asking a question but will always move forward to some type of solution. Variables can take you to a different flowchart to perform a separate task and then return you to the original flowchart to complete the process. Whichever method you choose, document your entire process and then move it to field testing.

Gather the necessary personnel to discuss the new process. Emphasize the importance of having established procedures and ask them for feedback and suggestions on how the process can be improved. You’ll have some employees that will make great suggestions and some not so great suggestions. It’s important they follow the process as documented to help in identifying problem areas. Review any suggestions they present and decide if it makes sense to implement. You most likely will not be able to make everyone happy and utilize all their suggestions. Some people will have to change the way they do things. The bottom line is to establish a procedure that is efficient and will work for everyone.

Once you’ve finished refining the process it’s time to create the final established process document. Meet with the necessary personnel again to review the document. Identify every step and explain why the process is being done this way. Make sure every person gets their own copy and if needed have them sign for it.

You’ll need to follow up for a few weeks to monitor the process and confirm the process is being followed by everyone correctly. If possible, document the effect the process has on your business in general. Are you more efficient? Do your employees have more time on their schedule?

Established documented processes can take the complication out of daily business tasks.