This blog is about lean. Lean startups, lean marketing, minimum viable products, I get all that. In this post I will argue that processes, systems, and standard operating procedures, though fixtures of pre-internet businesses, are ESSENTIAL to maintaining a lean business and really any business.
Even in the early days of the internet, starting a business was extremely expensive, which meant you couldn’t just stumble into entrepreneurship and hope for the best the way you can today. Then, in 2007, a major shift in business philosophy (4HWW) occurred right under my nose. A rebellious cadre of entrepreneurs took to their laptops and declared an end to archaic business fundamentals. Here are a few examples of this mindset revolution:
Old: Carefully consider your startup expenses. Get a business loan, find a financier, or use your savings.
New: Starting a business on the internet is almost free. Just drop $10 on a domain, $3/mo on hosting and plop WordPress on it. Start posting and you have a business!
Old: Consult with a lawyer and an accountant before determining your business structure.
New: Figure it out later!
Old: Write a business plan detailing every part of your business. Spend weeks on it. Maybe even hire an expensive consultant to do it for you.
New: Just pick a niche and start.
I get why the transition happened. I just don’t think you should be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The biggest baby I see tossed is the adherence to systems and processes.
Business is Processes
What do you get when you buy a McDonald’s franchise? You buy nothing more than a series of processes. You get a building that looks roughly the same as any other McDonalds, a menu with the same items, training manuals for how to make french fries, burgers, and every other contingency, etc. How else can a bunch of teenagers run a multi-million dollar operation?
Your business IS a process. You are turning inputs into outputs.
If you are a web developer, the input is the client’s description of what they want, and the output is the website.
If you are a car manufacturer, your inputs are the parts and materials, and your output is the car.
If you are an affiliate marketer, your input is the traffic that comes to your site, and your output is taking them to the target site with an elevated intent to buy.
You are turning something into something else, and that is what people are paying you for.
Have you ever had this happen to you? You sit down to do SEO for one of your sites or one of your clients’ sites. Five hours later, you’re not really sure what you did. Yeah, me too. It used to happen all the time until I began analyzing and defining each and every process in my business.
This is the framework you need to adopt. Think of your business as the overarching process. Inside this all-encompassing process are intermediary processes that turn intermediary inputs into intermediary outputs.
Here’s a simplified process diagram of an SEO business. Inputs are in green and processes are in yellow:
Let’s zoom in on New Content Creation. Follow through the diagram in terms of inputs and outputs. Red represents a process you have no control over. Note that the output of the previous process is the input for the next.
Let’s go one level deeper and zoom in on keyword research.
This is extremely simplified but it illustrates the strategy well.
You should do this for your entire business. How deep should you go? Once the steps reach absurdity like “double-click on Market Samurai,” or “start your computer” you can stop. Do what’s reasonable and helpful.
Advantages of Processization
1. It highlights what can be outsourced.
When you have your operations so clearly defined, it becomes apparent that you are not really necessary for a giant chunk of your business operations.
2. Increased efficiency
At any given point in time, you and your staff know EXACTLY what to do once you finish performing the current task. Every decision you have to make drains your mental energy. It’s best to reduce decisions so you can focus on the truly important ones.
3. Your business is sellable
Remember that McDonalds is nothing more than a proven and established series of processes? If you ever want to unload your business, processization will make it sellable and increase the price.
4. Consistent quality
Imagine going to your favorite sandwich place and getting an amazing sandwich one day and a crappy one the next day. Even if on the good days, this was the world’s greatest sandwich, you would stop patronizing this business. One of the things you pay for when buying any product is consistency in the quality. Processizing your business ensures that each of your customers is receiving the same quality service. This is also how you avoid bad reviews in Yelp, etc.
5. You can sell the outputs of your processes
Once your processes achieve a certain efficiency and effectiveness you can begin selling them to others who can benefit. Often it’s easier to simply outsource an entire process than building your own team. This is exactly what I do at processmint.com. I offer Process Mint clients the same processes that have been working for me in my business and other clients’ businesses.
Demolish Process Barriers
What are the roadblocks to implementing processes? I hear basically 2 objections:
1. Processes stifle creativity
2. My business is too complex to processitize
To the first objection, it’s actually the exact opposite. You’re afraid of the potential monotony that processes create. Processes actually encourage creativity. Running a disorganized business requires so much mental energy, just trying to figure out what to do next will sap your creativity. When standard operating procedures are in place, you can spend your saved energy on creativity.
And furthermore, you can apply your creativity to your process design. Think of ways to constantly improve your processes, to introduce new ones, or to replace ineffective ones.
To the second objection, I usually find that this is an excuse for laziness. It can be a difficult thought exercise to run through your entire business and establish processes.
Remember, some processes are better than none. You might not be able to standardize your entire business, but there are certainly parts you can. Turning even small parts of your business into established processes can have an extremely cathartic effect and reduce the number of headaches.
Also, what exactly is preventing you from turning even creative activities into processes? Writers use predetermined frameworks and outlines. Effective website designers pick from a list of predetermined themes that are relevant to their customers’ needs. Broadcasters have an established delivery method. Interviewers use prewritten questions. Whatever it is you do, you can create processes.
Go to bubbl.us. This is the mindmapping app I used to create the diagrams in this post. Pick a relatively simple process in your business and begin mapping that sh*t. You’ll be glad you did.
Updated June 8, 2015 by Adam Steele