“You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.”
- Pablo Neruda
I don’t have a favorite season … but if I did, Spring would be duking it out with Fall for first place ...
Spring is like nature’s blank slate. Things are bursting up from the ground, the days are expanding, and it feels like the perfect time to open everything up and scrub it down so that it’s crisp and ready to serve us for another year.
Yes, I’m talking about spring cleaning ... and not just for your home.
If you’re working onsite in an office, the physical cleaning is hopefully being handled as part of your COVID mitigation process.
But what about your operations and systems? Are they running efficiently, or have they become bloated and neglected over the past year?
No judgment if the answer to that is yes.
Last year, just keeping the lights on should be considered a win. And with all the changes we each needed to incorporate into our workflows, it’s understandable that efficiency wasn’t the primary focus.
And now it’s 2021, and spring is here—a new season in a new year—so let’s take some time to look at your SOPs with fresh eyes.
Here are three simple steps to help you do just that.
STEP 1: PERFORM AN OBJECTIVE AUDIT
First, review your systems with a dispassionate eye—what’s working and what’s not?
And to ensure you remain open minded, check any prejudices or preconceived ideas at the door.
Approach this process with what’s known in Zen, and other Buddhist philosophies, as Beginner’s Mind.
Imagine what you might find if you knew nothing before you began.
Because if you expect to find specific problems, you definitely will … and as a result of focusing on those, you may miss others completely.
This audit aims to find only what’s ACTUALLY broken or inefficient, not what you expect to be broken or inefficient.
Here are some best practices to use when conducting an objective audit:
- Stick to facts and analyze the available data.
Don’t accept stories, like: “X always happens …,” as fact. Seek proof to support the summation. Also, pay attention to always/never language—few things are all or nothing.
- Look closely at internal pain or stress points.
If you have a leaky pipe, you’ll find drops of water where they don’t belong. Same goes for your worktime operations. Similarly, bottlenecks can usually be spotted where workflow slows to a trickle—is that the result of a person or a system or both?
- Enlist your team.
Get a wide range of perspectives. You may not be aware of inefficiencies if you don’t engage with those processes, or if you’ve gotten used to your own workarounds.
- Quantify and rank your results.
Use a ranking system to help you compare apples to apples AND to prioritize the order in which you’ll fix any breakdowns. Something as simple as a scale of 1 to 5 will help you identify how badly the system is currently. And then you can use a similar ranking when you prioritize time to fix what’s broken.
Post-audit, you’ll focus on two lists: processes that are completely broken (4s and 5s), and processes that work okay, but aren’t as efficient as they should be (2s and 3s).
We’ll start with the stuff that’s just plain broken, since that’s not just a leaky pipe—it’s a flood in progress—and within those 4s and 5s, which failures are both urgent AND important to remedy first.
STEP 2: TRIAGE WHAT’S NOT WORKING
These are the 4s and 5s from your audit. The processes and systems that simply don’t work … to the point that everyone has developed their own hacks to work around them.
One easy way to find these is to look for processes that no one bothers to use anymore.
Here’s an example.
One client, a tech company, consistently ran up against bugs in their software. The company only housed developers in their Montreal office; all of the other North American offices were meant to create work tickets for the Montreal team when the software went to hell.
But the Montreal team’s response time to these tickets was so long that people stopped bothering to create tickets at all.
Instead, when something needed fixing, a technician would IM a buddy in the Montreal office and jump the queue to get her problem solved.
Or, they’d simply work around the bug until a customer complained, at which point management got involved and the bug would get fixed.
That’s a broken system.
So what do you do when you find similar broken systems and procedures in your business?
Follow these simple steps:
- Confirm that this is a recurring task or action that needs a system. Sometimes companies create systems for 1-off tasks that will never be repeated.
- Return to the original goal: What problem are you trying to solve or what exactly are you trying to accomplish through this procedure?
- Identify the straight line: What is the most efficient, direct route from the beginning of the process to your desired outcome for the goal?
Believe it or not, this is often much simpler than trying to fix a BROKEN system. You’re not obligated to waste time trying to refurbish something that isn’t currently functional—it will often take more time and more resources than just starting from scratch.
Yes, implementing will also take some time because you’re building from the ground up. But the benefits are great—you get a shiny, new effective system while promoting collaboration and fostering buy-in from the entire team.
For major procedures, the return on investment far outweighs the resources invested when you create an efficient process for doing something essential to your operations.
STEP 3: IMPROVE WHAT’S MOSTLY WORKING
Next, tackle those 2s and 3s—the systems that work okay, but could work even better.
Usually, this means redundancies or skipped steps.
If you’re doubling up on certain tasks for quality control, that’s one thing. But if a process contains needless redundancies because of lack of uniformity in tools or general carelessness or sloppiness … kill ‘em.
At that same tech company, the account management team was required to document weekly client updates in two different places to keep two different management levels in the loop. Each management team preferred a separate tool.
This was frustrating and inefficient for the employees, and as a result, one system typically suffered more than the other.
Middle management didn’t always have the information they needed when they needed it, and they felt like their team was going around them. In fact, when the team didn’t have the time to make notes in two places, they prioritized the ones visible to the division VP.
This is an example of a system that works okay—in that notes are still getting updated—but it needs serious improvement. There’s a clear duplication of effort that creates issues at all levels.
Here’s what to do when this happens:
- Identify the bottlenecks. Where is work slowing down? Where are people getting tripped up? Is it personality-based, lack of skillset or the wrong tools?
- Find the frictionless version. What improvements can smooth out your current system? Root out redundancies and pare down to what’s essential. By all means, make sure that everyone is using the same apps and other tools so work is never duplicated on multiple systems for the same purpose.
- Implement. Once you know what to do, do it—don’t procrastinate.
Lots of companies fail at this final stage, because it requires effort.
Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Today’s leaky pipe is tomorrow’s flood, so take the necessary steps now to optimize your processes … BEFORE a significant problem makes it urgent—or worse, too late.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you haven’t already completed a post-COVID systems audit, capitalize on the season’s energy and do it NOW.
It’s imperative this year, since lots of process improvements were back-burnered as we all dealt with the dumpster fire that was 2020.
It’s 2021 now and time to get back on track with three simple steps for a thorough SOP deep-dive:
- Audit your systems as objectively as possible
- Take what’s broken, and work from the ground up to replace it with a functional system or procedure that has buy-in
- Then, patch your leaky pipes. Where are the pain points that are minor headaches for now? They’re bigger issues in the making—fix them before they grow.
Helping businesses optimize is what we do best! If you need some spring cleaning backup, schedule a quick and free strategy call with our COO, Kevin Smith.