(Published in DATIA Focus, Winter 2015) See the original here on pages 24-25.

checkboxSmall businesses are responsible for countless innovations and, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, make up more than 99.7 percent of all employers. Yet, as important as small businesses are to the U.S. economy, many of these firms suffer. Why? Mostly because the owners are simply overwhelmed by just about everything from making sure there’s enough inventory to filling in for sick employees. The result is stressed out employees and unhappy clients.

Take a page out of the big business playbook.

Walk into any McDonald’s, anywhere in the world, and you will have roughly the same experience. Whether it be in Chicago, Hong Kong, London or Three Rivers, Michigan, your order will be handled the same way and your order will be prepared identically.

McDonald’s is not about burgers. Most burger restaurants have much better food. McDonald’s is all about process. Employees are more-or-less interchangeable. You don’t have to have easily replaceable employees— or even a lot of them— but if you think about your business the same way an established franchise does, the benefits are many.

If you have been at it long enough you already have processes in place, though they may be unstructured and undocumented. Different team members may have their own ways of doing things. These processes gain a lot more leverage when you write them down. When you go through the exercise of documenting your standard operating procedures (SOPs), it helps you think about whether you can do things better or more efficiently. When you are better, faster and more consistent, you waste less mental energy and you will have less stress — and your clients will are better served.

The DOT’s 10 Steps to Collection Site Security is a perfect example. It’s the Cliff’s Notes to the collection process. If everyone follows those steps, then every donor will have roughly the same experience, and collections become automatic for the collector. And we also have 49CFR Part 40 to rely on when things don’t go as planned. When we get a shy bladder, or the temperature is out of range, we really don’t have any big decisions to make. Part 40 tells us what to do.The rules are the rules.

Why not treat the rest of your business the same way?

In my business we have documented processes for most of the things that matter. In fact, I wrote the first draft of our Operations Manual before we even opened. It has since been edited, tweaked and modified and will continue to be a living document, as it should. But it provides the guardrails.

The introductory sections include our Mission and Vision Statements as well as business hours, key contacts and emergency contact information. The rest has chapters on our Best Practices for all office processes.

Examples include:

  • How we answer the phone and handle inquiries.
  • Daily Opening and Closing Procedures
  • How our filing system is organized.
  • How we operate when the power goes out or the Internet goes down.
  • Monthly record scanning and archiving
  • How to greet and process walk-ins. We do clinical testing as well as drug testing, and handle self-pay clients as well.
  • How paperwork is handled after a donor leaves.
  • How billing paperwork is processed.
  • How and when we do inventory and quality assurance.
  • And of course it addresses the drug test collection process and a lot more.

When the “new guy” is hired, the first thing he gets is the Ops Manual, with a “This is how we do things here.” Of course we go over things in training, but it’s a good start.

But isn’t this big book cumbersome?

In a word, yes. And if you had to refer to it every day every time you had to do something, it would gather dust. This is where the checklists come in. Yes, checklists can be cumbersome too, if they are too complex. We are still paring ours down to the bare essentials. Each Best Practice in the Operations Manual is summarized in a checklist at the end. For completeness, they are integrated in the manual, but in practice, copies are posted in locations where they can be a quick reference. The Opening and Closing checklist is at the front desk, along with phone numbers for courier pickups, for example.

If you think of the Operations Manual as 49CFR Part 40, and the checklists as the 10 Steps to Collection Site Security, that would be a fair analogy.

Our checklists are getting simpler, influenced in a large part by The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande. Gawande used airline pilots’ checklists as a model for improving safety and eliminating mistakes in surgery. It’s a simple thing, and he makes a compelling argument for making them as simple as possible. If they are not used, they are useless.

There is more to our Operations Manual, but its heart and soul is the processes that are documented. Some call them Standard Operating Procedures, but I prefer Best Practices, as I think that is really what it’s about: doing things the best way possible for a given situation.

Controlled growth

When a company is small, it’s easy to “wing it,” since there isn’t as much to manage, but “winging it” takes its toll over time. As you grow, steps get skipped, billing gets lost, employees get frazzled and customers get neglected. The fewer decisions that waste precious mental energy, the better off you are. The more employees understand the “guardrails,” the more empowered they feel. Documenting your processes puts the day-to-day on cruise control for the whole team, and allows people to concentrate on more important issues.

Where to start

Like many of you, I read a lot of business books. But there is one I keep going back to. It’s dog-eared and highlighted and still full of great thoughts. That book is Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited. For those of you non-readers, read it. It’s an easy one.


Tim Thoelecke is the owner of InOut Labs, a Chicago area business that provides TPA and collection services, as well as DNA and clinical lab testing services. He applies lessons learned from previous successful businesses to InOut Labs which was founded in 2012. Tim is a member of DATIA and holds CPC-T certification.