Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Write It Down!

Process needn't be a scary word. In flying, I learned that it's not so much a way to hem you in as it's a way of making it easier to adjust or adapt when situations are unusual.

Good pilots make a rectangular pattern at a specific altitude above the runway when making a landing - and they do it the same way every time. Sometimes terrain or other conditions dictate that it happen differently, but if you don't change the way you make your landing, it's easier to tell when something is not as it should be so that you can make the appropriate adjustments. Not only are you more likely to remember everything that needs to be done (especially helpful when flying!), you can also see and feel when something is different because you get used to what "right" looks and feels like.

Similarly, a photographer friend of mine told me the reasoning behind her selection of a medium-grade film stock. While it was possible to get film stock of a superior grade, she felt that shooting with the same film all the time was a more important factor in producing good images because it allowed her to understand the film better under all conditions if that's what she always shot with. By keeping the film constant, she was playing with fewer variables and could concentrate more on the conditions of the shoot. Because she traveled all over the world, she wanted to be sure she chose a film she could get anywhere; she sacrificed a bit on film quality to keep the consistency she found so useful in her work and her photographs were better for it.

Do you know your processes at work or in your home life as well as the photographer knew her film? Do you even have processes that you use?

A friend of mine bought a house a while back. If you own a home long enough, sooner or later you will come to realize (hopefully not the hard way!) that there are some things you just need to do on a periodic basis just to protect your investment, even if you don't care about getting wet when the roof starts to leak or getting cold when the furnace blows up. Cleaning moss off the roof and keeping air filters in the furnace clean are just a couple of good examples. Usually, grass just looks ugly if it gets overgrown but conscientious folks seem to at least understand the concept that mowing the lawn once a week or so is a good idea even if they don't always follow through. Maybe it's just calling to be cut. Plenty of other processes aren't so readily apparent in their necessity until serious problems arise.

My friend's solution was to keep a notebook, complete with calendar, listing all the things that needed to be done regularly (as they were discovered, or according to advice) to keep up the house and yard. There was never any question then of when or if something needed to be done. Consulting the notebook and calendar became a regular habit for ongoing maintenance that then was scheduled into the normal flow of life... and when those little emergencies hit, all the needed information was right there too.

Business is the same way. Customers yelling to have something fixed, a boss hassling you to get a thing done, even your inbox piling up with unread messages may be in front of your face enough to be like the grass that needs mowing. Do you wait for those things to crop up when it's most inconvenient for you or do you do things like prune your inbox for 10 minutes each evening before you head out the door for home?

What other things in your business life need processes that are written down and scheduled? It seems like such a scary thing - like we'll become robotic or something - adhering to all these processes. Think of it though - how much more can you get done if you're on top of things and taking care of issues before they become fires instead of running always to catch up? How much nicer would it be that you can go on vacation, knowing that work will still get done (because someone else can follow your process) instead of something that steadily grows into a larger and larger headache waiting for your return.

About now, some people like to point out the one-off situation that only rarely occurs. The trouble there is, if you have no process for those situations then everyone wastes that much more time trying to figure out how it should be handled. And sure, it may not happen again, but then again it may... or something similar enough may occur again that what you learned this time around could be of some use. If you don't write down what you did (and what of that worked, or what you decide later should be different the next time around), then you (or your successor) will have to go through that exact same hassle the next time around. There is value to maintaining a sense of history - not to get locked into old ways of doing things but to avoid having to constantly reinvent the wheel.

What wheels do you find yourself having to re-invent on a periodic basis? What do you do regularly that no one else understands how to do? Send your thoughts (or your vehement objections to anything resembling a process) to I bet it would make for some great discussion!

Where would improvements in consistency beat out superior effort in your pursuit of quality?