Scaling a Company Requires Defining Your Business Processes, but Not Too Much

Small companies don't need much structure, but as a business grows chaos can quickly ensue. Good process design can help.

Standardizing processes is important for a growing business, but few people know exactly how to do this. Most times, what is created is too general or detailed and burdensome and is put on the shelf never to be looked at again. A good process is a tool for management and strikes the delicate balance between comprehensiveness and effectiveness.

The key to designing a good process in any business is to see it as a tool for communication between people and teams that's continually updated and changed as the business grows. Follow these steps and balance the need for details with ease of use.

1. Focus on core capabilities

A business is made up of many interconnected processes, and you won't be able to define them all on the same level. It's best to focus your efforts on the one or two dozen procedures that truly drive the capabilities critical to your business and create your competitive advantage.

2. Start with the standard path

Oftentimes, teams get mired in details and expectations. I suggest you put aside the "what ifs" and first focus on the standard path through your process. Don't worry yet about all the things that could happen. Just define the way the system typically works.

3. Select a starting point

Clarifying your start and end points are important first steps. Get everyone on the same page when a process starts, and define the preconditions and other requirements. Similarly, setting forth your definition of done will help everyone know when a process is complete and closed.

4. List players and departments

Brainstorm all the roles and departments involved and what they do. Consider everyone who has input, approvals, verifications, and notifications. I like making roles and department columns or lanes in my process diagram and color code them so that I can see the flow across the organization.

5. Determine progression phases

Create a few phases between your beginning and end points. These will help people know where something is in the process. For example, if I'm defining a sales process, I might have phases labeled prospect, lead, proposal, approved, and signed contract. This will help people know where an item stands in the process, and it creates a common language and can help with measurement.

6. Create key checkpoints

At various stages of the process, you'll need checkpoints with detailed requirements. At a minimum, you'll need checkpoints at your phases, but you'll also need others to define smaller steps. Each person will define the minimum conditions that need to be met for the process to proceed.

7. Clarify handoffs and integrations

For each handoff, I like to see a checklist for what is being handed off and the conditions that need to be met. For example, if I'm handing off a lead from marketing to sales, I would expect to see a complete profile with confirmed contact information. Both sides should agree to the details.

Similarly, I want to see integrations defined with what is being delivered, how, and by whom. Are you sending it to my email or is it being entered into a database? If you're dealing with physical goods, where is it placed, and how is it labeled? These are the details that make the system work.

8. Identify key decision and approval points

Oftentimes, processes have steps that need input from specific people--things like quality control or approvals for budgets or pricing. While I suggest you minimize bureaucracy and complexity, sometimes these steps are necessary. Mark them in your process with clear owners, guidelines, and timeframes.

9. Consider alternative paths

Once you've mapped out the ideal path, begin to consider alternative scenarios that might reasonably occur and how you want to handle them. Don't try to cover each and every possibility. Generally, I want a standard process to cover 80 to 95 percent of the standard cases. Exceptions can be handled separately. Avoid bloating your standard process with too many "what if" situations, which will just make it difficult to implement.

10. Set timelines and milestones

Once you have a process designed with phases and milestones, you can then attach some expected timeframes and guidelines to the process. This is key to process improvement. Defining a target and then measuring actual times and variances is where you'll find parts of the process that are working well and those that are not.

The overall goal of any process is to make operating the business easier and more consistent. And as the business grows, its processes will change. All in all, the one process every company needs to develop is the process for creating and evolving its processes.

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