What are your Key Processes?

Written by Daryl Starr. Inspired by @JoshSchultz

All profitable businesses have a handful of Key Processes. These processes involve coordinating multiple people in various roles, each doing their own specialized procedures. Years ago –prior to Little Engine Ventures– I documented decision trees, printed and laminated them for my field technicians. This was extremely useful for the crew leader to point back to. “It’s not me. It’s our way. Look here.” The most frequent distraction was pending rainfall. What do we do? I mapped it out (currently raining? move locations. Not currently raining? Go to next decision.) I then realized that by moving up a cadence trigger in the decision tree we could differentiate our operation greatly and satisfy nearly twice as many customers with the same crew. (if it wasn’t raining the next question was, “have we been onsite for 3.5 days? If yes, move locations. If no, go back to work.”) This laminated document was magic. It was a Key Process that coordinated people in the field with the office staff and sales force. Everyone knew that our customers would see progress on a regular, weekly cadence. We could put rush jobs at the top and see them through. We’d prepare for this key process ahead, and follow it religiously in the heat of seasonal surges. And we were a small team. Imagine how important this would become if we were in a larger organization.

Today we have nearly 80 employees across our diversified portfolio of control companies. While this figure is peanuts compared to some, it’s more people than I have ever managed… and way more diverse. And, I screw it up occasionally. Fortunately, I have wonderful General Managers who hold people together when I ask oddball questions or make disruptive maneuvers. Together, we are also improving our documentation of key processes.

Most small businesses do not document their key processes. They pick it up by iteration and insightful leadership, with a follow-the-leader absorption process. To begin the design process, the owner-operator observes an unnecessary step and eliminates it. Or, they accidentally do things in an odd order and it becomes “the way” the business works. Mikel and I call this “cutting the ends off the hams.” Ask grandma why, and she says that’s how her mother did it. Roll back in time further and it turns out great grandma’s oven was too small for a normal ham. Times change. We ought to update our processes, too.

When ownership is removed from operations, you need processes to develop processes (yes, very meta, right?) This is far easier said than done. In our circumstance, I’ve been saying this for years. Saying it is not doing it. And, we’ve not always done a great job ensuring good process design and implementation. Sure there are some work instructions written down here or there, or a job description crafted for recruiting purposes, or a warehouse order flow mapped out, but is it really documented? How do we update these processes? Do we truly onboard new employees according to these documents? In my opinion, we are not zealous enough about training on “the way.”

But, we are getting much, much better. This winter I observed multiple cases of good onboarding. And the effectiveness of the new teammate was tremendous. In several instances the new teammates’ rapid uptake sparked others on the team to step up their performance. A virtuous flywheel is set in motion necessitating new people that meet the new, higher standards.

So how do we identify the Key Processes?

Here is what I’ve done… (and continue to do.)

Imagine an employee is gone for a month. What would have to be done to cover for them? Write those observations down. March through your entire personnel list. (easier when you’re smaller!) Write down 2-3 things for each person. Take that list and lay it out on a large table (or in a spreadsheet). Are there duplicates? Write those down. Are there items that stand out as only able to be performed by rockstar employees? Write those down. These two categories are important. Now, arrange the items, and the others, in a reasonable operating flow. How does the customer order move through the system? Where is the throughput slowed? How do you resolve those common bottlenecks? This should trigger you to add several more key processes.

Depending on your business, you should probably have between 5-9 Key Processes with two of these being highly unusual compared to your competitors. Drill deep into these two. Document them. Refine them. Laminate them. Train on them and revisit them often. These are your Key Processes.

Now, begin to invite feedback on their design. Can it be simplified further? What is inaccurate? What is confusing? What is missing? Refine. Refine.

Move down through the org chart. Don’t have an Org Chart? Draw one. Ask people if it reflects reality. You might be surprised. Write down what you learn. Show them what you heard them say. Ask for feedback on that.

Do this and knuckleheads will leave and the best employees will rise up. Keep repeating until everyone is rowing in the same direction, at a healthy rhythm. Now, train new people on the way.

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