Why You Shouldn’t Automate Your Business (Yet)

As a small business owner, you're constantly inundated with articles and updates in your feed about the wonder and glory of automating your business. With all the tools and experts out there, it's easy to start feeling like you're behind the eight ball on all this business automation stuff. Maybe you’re even starting to feel some anxiety about what seems to be a huge undertaking. Well, if you're like most of the small businesses I work with, it's probably not time to start automating just yet.

You Can't Automate What You Can't Write Down

"If you can't write it down, it's not a thing."

That’s an annoying thing I like to say. There are so many aspects of our jobs that have evolved over the years so organically that they become second nature to us. So we think we are clear on the process. But if we were to ask three different people on the team to write down how it works, we'd likely get three different answers. And we never quite seem to get around to asking those three people. And don’t even get me started on what happens when those three people quit.

So let's say you really wanted to automate your business. How do you automate a process that you can't even write down? How do you decide what parts to automate? The answer to both questions is...You can’t.

Before you can make things work better, there needs to be a shared clarity for your team in the reality of how those things work today. And that takes time and focus. Documenting your processes may not be as flashy as that software tool that zaps data from here to there, but it's a foundation that's worth the investment.

Aside from being a necessary first step to jumping into the process automation game, documenting your processes has some pretty sweet side-effects too, including:

  • Identifying problems and inefficiencies that can be quickly resolved

  • Increasing teamwork and collaboration

  • Helping team members understand the impact of their actions in the greater process

  • Improving the training experience for new team members through better documentation

It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Getting Started With Process Documentation

If you're wondering how to get the ball rolling with writing down what your business does, look no further. Just follow the steps below...

Step 1 - Pick a Department

Rome wasn’t built in a day and your entire business won’t get documented in one either. When you try to examine the business as a whole, it can feel overwhelming. Instead, start with one functional group or department. If it’s not obvious where to start, choose the department that has the most flexible and easygoing team members who will be willing to participate fully. Their good juju will get the project started off on a positive note and propel you forward into documenting the next department.

Step 2 – Figure Out Who Does What

Process Mentors client, John Waters, defining his team’s roles.

Process Mentors client, John Waters, defining his team’s roles.

Businesses are run by people so it’s always best to start out by defining roles. No one ever has trouble coming up with a laundry list of things they do every day/week/month, so it gets everyone feeling productive and focused right from the start. My favorite way to begin is through a brain-writing exercise where I give everyone 10 minutes on their own to write down every single task they are responsible for on individual sticky notes and put them up on the walls. Then, we work together as a group to define the roles in the department, and assign those sticky-note tasks to each of the roles. There are disagreements sometimes, but that’s the point...we’re looking for a shared understanding of what we do. It’s engaging for the whole team and, dare I say, fun!

Step 3 - Name the Processes

When you look up on those fabulous sticky-note-covered walls, you’ll not only see a list of the tasks for each role. You’ll also begin to see that you can group those tasks into categories of interrelated steps. Guide your team to name those categories you discover. Those named categories will become the key processes you’ll write down. This important step will allow your team to be laser-focused on the boundaries of the specific process they’re working on, since (most of) the steps have already been identified.

Step 4 – Start Simply

Once you’ve identified they key processes you’ll focus on, it’s time to get to work documenting. You can either assign that to an individual or do it together as a group. (I recommend doing at least one together as a group first.) But there’s no reason to get all fancy about it. Often, a simple 2-column table or a spreadsheet is an un-intimidating way to begin writing down all the steps needed to complete a process.

The first step in any process is its “input.” To figure out what it is, ask yourself, “What thing happens that makes this whole process get kicked off in the first place?” After that, just braindump what your team does step by step by step. Finally, end with the “output” or the finished product that is the result of the process. Here’s a simple example of how that might look:

Process: Selling Lemonade

Step Who
INPUT: Customer requests lemonade       Customer
Collect payment and give change Cashier
Pour ice into cup Lemonade Artist
Pour lemonade into cup Lemonade Artist
Insert straw into cup Lemonade Artist
Hand lemonade to Cashier Lemonade Artist
OUTPUT: Hand lemonade to customer       Cashier

This isn’t about capturing every last detail and contingency, necessarily. But it is about coming to agreement about the order and ownership of each of the steps along the way. If you focus on those two things, you and your team will learn a lot about the assumptions each of you had about what really happens.

OK, Nowwwwww You Can Automate

With your as-is processes clearly documented (Which will have made your processes better and your team more efficient), now is a great time to start automating.

  • You know where your handoffs are.

  • You know what data needs to move from point A to point B.

  • You know which tasks are the most cumbersome and/or repeated.

In short, you have a clarity about how your business works that you could’ve never had before you wrote all this stuff down. With that clarity comes confidence and efficiency as you improve how you do things. So whether you decide to tackle the automation journey on your own or outsource it to an expert, you now have a map of exactly what needs to happen every step of the way. And journeys just work better with maps.

If you want to start documenting your processes, reach out to Process Mentors. I can help!