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Back when I was running an English school one of the greatest challenges was juggling staff. Finding talented people that were available when I needed them was difficult and unfortunately since I could only offer casual hours most teachers didn’t stay around long as they found permanent employment elsewhere.
Small business owners will no doubt one day hire staff to take over some of the roles within their business. As their organisation grows they will likely hire more and more people to deal with increased demand and expansion needs. The task of finding new staff is never easy, but once staff are in place entrepreneurs often quickly come to rely on the specific skills and talents of new recruits. Unfortunately creating a relationship like this can often lead to a very painful situation when the staffer finds another job or decides it’s time for that year long, round-the-world backpacking adventure she’s always wanted to go on.
One of the most common mistakes that small business owners make is to become dependent on the skills of particular staff members. It’s easy to fall into this trap when suddenly your job becomes that much easier and your task load drops significantly. Often a new staff member is hired because they possess a certain technical talent or expertise that is vital to the functioning of the company.
Things generally travel along fine until one day you are notified that your wunderkid employee is leaving and you suddenly have to find a replacement. Often this news comes when you may be snowed under with other tasks and to drop everything and go looking for a new hire plus train them up is not something you had planned for.
I use a computer every day. All aspects of my income are dependent on my computer working and having access to the Internet. Because of this dependency I’m very conscious of the need for back-up, redundancy and worse case scenario plans. In my mind I plan out what would happen if every computer in my house suddenly blew up – would I still be able to run my business?
The same rules must be applied for dealing with the loss of people resources. Losing staff is not something that only “unlucky” or poorly managed businesses experience, even the best workplaces can expect to lose staff at some point. Business owners must have contingency plans for a scenario where suddenly key personal are no longer available. Can you still run your business effectively if Tim your software programmer leaves, or Jane the project manager departs for greener pastures?
The entrepreneur myth or E-Myth is a book written by Michael Gerber that lays out recommendations for systematizing a small business, essentially creating documentation that can be followed by even the least talented staff member in order to complete core tasks. While cleaning staff can’t be expected to perform brain surgery when a doctor suddenly quits, the principle is that an easy to follow blueprint is available for all core business procedures so other staff can step in and keep things running until a new hire is found.
All tasks within a company can be documented. As a small business you only have so much time to create documentation so focusing on the core functions is crucial. As an exercise in forward thinking stop right now and think what the core tasks that keep your business going are. Imagine what would happen if you were sick today and you had to go to hospital, could someone do your job? Apply the same logic to all the vital roles in your organisation and make a list of the crucial tasks.
One you have a list of the most vital business activities start writing out documentation to instruct someone how to perform the tasks. Consider your admin assistant or mother stepping in to take over your job – what would you have to tell them in order for them to at least keep the boat afloat while you are gone. It’s not the most enjoyable job in the world but planning for the unexpected is something that you only appreciate in dire circumstances.
Taking this concept one step further is the overall process of business systemization. Documentation isn’t only valuable for dealing with the unexpected, it’s also works to turn your business into a well oiled and efficient machine. If you have documents in place for all the key procedures in your business you can reduce training time and increase staff efficiency as there is less trial and error learning and more systematic doing. Staff don’t have to second guess procedures and tasks are done as efficiently as possible.
One word of warning about business systemization – be careful not to stifle creativity and free thinking. Your systems may be fantastically efficient but there are always new ways you can enhance what you do. Having documented systems runs the risk that your staff may become like robots, never questioning what they do and implementing what the system tells them to. It’s less work to follow instructions without free thinking – people very easily become apathetic.
A good employee is also a free thinker. While they may follow a system because it’s clearly an efficient tool they will also be looking for ways to improve things and question the system constantly for justification of it’s methods. With systems in place your employees have a clear blueprint to follow to get things done and will hopefully seek to understand why a system is the way it is and then enhance it. Take away the system and employees spend more time learning a job “on the fly”, working to get the basics understood, which is a long way off from augmenting an already solid system.
Documenting your business processes and creating systems, while not the most enjoyable task in the world, is vital. You should have systems in place that instruct employees to create more systems. Every job process has the potential to be documented, especially work on computers that can be screen captured with audio instructions using a headset and a software program like Camtasia. For those less technically inclined pen and paper or a written document in word-processor software is all you need to get started.