The Summer Olympics in Rio aren’t far away and soon we’ll all be watching the world’s greatest athletes do what they do best.
The gold-medal winners will be those who don’t waste any energy or strength. They will have developed the athletic form that best focuses their effort into their competitive activity.
It’s the same in business. The winners are the companies that don’t waste energy and strength (money and people) on activities that deviate from getting things accomplished. This means that on both a macro and micro level, your employees need to be working at their highest levels of efficiency.
On the face of it, this seems obvious and many business owners are so focused on their mission and its recipe of success that they make two mistakes:
- They assume everyone has the same vision as they do, and
- They assume that people are doing their tasks as efficiently as possible.
Both of these assumptions are wrong. Way wrong.
You need to clearly define and communicate what your business needs to be doing (its purpose) and then you need to clearly communicate how to do all the little things that have to happen in order to see that the business is fulfilling its purpose.
Communicate your purpose
The mistake many business owners make when they set out to communicate the essential purpose of their business is to overgeneralize. Further, they think that by bathing their generalization in passion, they can pull it off.
“Acme Widgets will be the best widget company in the world!”
Repeating a mantra like this over and over again with sweat pouring off your brow by the end of your presentation will get people excited during the last evening of a weekend company retreat, but won’t provide any direction for work on Monday morning.
For example, Zappos made a commitment to be the best online source of shoes, but it defined its mission much more narrowly and specifically than that. It committed to having the best customer service and the best selection. Further, it recognized that the prime component of providing the best customer service was providing the fastest delivery.
Service, selection and speed. Those are three attributes people can get their arms around. They can easily be developed to even deeper levels. When employees know that they are tasked with providing the best service, selection and speed, many other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Let people know the goal of their mission.
Clarify and liberate
I’m reminded of a story a friend once told me. He was working for a small, young department in a large corporation. The department had been spun off by the corporation’s R&D arm a couple of years earlier and was spending money like it was still in R&D.
The corporation sent in its turnaround guy and his main message was that costs had to come down. He told people to spend money like it was their own money. Employees in the group were free to do whatever they felt was right as long as the goal was to save money.
It was clarifying and liberating. The turnaround guy – who scared almost everyone – had no problem if someone screwed up, as long as the person screwed up trying to save money.
Keeping people headed in the same direction is difficult, but if they aren’t headed in the same direction you’re wasting energy and strength. It’s called leadership and to be a great leader in your company, you need to let people understand your mission and purpose with enough specificity that they can act on it!
Do that, give them the authority to act and you have something very special.
Taking it to the streets
Once you have the big picture and the over-arching goals of your business communicated, you’re ready to get into the nitty-gritty details. It’s like a page from a coloring book: You have the outlines – and people aren’t supposed to color outside the lines – and now you have to define the ideal colors.
This is accomplished by writing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all the tasks you and your team are required to do on a regular basis. That may seem daunting at first, and I suppose it can be. However, the key is to just get started.
One important concept to know is that for SOPs to be successful, they need to come from the grassroots up. If you sit in your office and issue edicts on how things are to be done, you won’t get anywhere. People can collaborate, share and improve on each of the SOPs that they author. In fact, this is not something that is done once; smart businesses are continually improving their procedures.
I’m sure if you went to somewhere like Zappos, you’d find that they would even have an SOP on how to answer the phone. You see, if you want to provide the best customer service, it starts with procedures such as answering the phone. The lesson here is to eventually cover everything you do on a regular basis – even if it’s done infrequently.
A recipe for success
I’ve known some companies that bring in technical writers to author procedures. That may be necessary in some cases – although I strongly doubt it – but these aren’t the kinds of situations you’re likely to find yourself in. Yet many employees at all levels dread the thought of having to write a procedure, so I want to give you an easy way to get this done: Model your procedures after recipes.
Virtually everyone in your company has followed a cooking recipe at some time, if it’s only to make a box of Duncan Hines brownies, so they should be familiar with the form.
Break your SOPs down into categories like these:
- Ingredients (what you need to accomplish this task),
- Steps (the logical progression of how the task is done),
- Notes (special information that will shed light on the entire procedure), and
- Illustration(s) (show what the finished product should look like and any other pictures that will help complete the task).
Create some examples using this form. Many of us are visual learners. Having an example in front of us of what a recipe-style SOP looks like, helps us model the SOPs we need to write.
There’s also a good chance that some people on your team will be better at writing these than others and that’s fine. However, let everyone involved have input through a series of reviews because even those who are weaker writers will have some good tips on how to improve your SOPs. And, as I said above, these are always works-in-progress so keep refining them.
The next steps
I want to add two more quick notes to this discussion. First, when you have a series of procedures, they can be linked together to create systems within your company and when you have efficient systems humming away, you have productivity and that is our goal.
Lastly, in some cases developing the SOPs and systems is the first step to automation. When you can really map out what has to happen, what is important and what order things should go in, some of your systems will eventually lend themselves to automation.
And if you’ve been sufficiently productive all along, you should have the money to develop the automation software.
Images: “Young running man against digital media background / Shutterstock.com“
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