Probing the Limits: Document What You (Are Going To) Do

December 1, 2005
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Taking the approach of designing ideal processes instead of just documenting what you are doing can yield many valuable benefits.

Last week, I started a unique project that has given me insight into why quality systems are

so important.

I recently started a new, small manufacturing business and I am documenting how I want the manufacturing systems to run-before the first product is ever built.

A common phrase associated with formalizing a quality system is, "Document what you do, then make sure you do it." Experienced quality professionals know that there is more to it than that, but the first step in formalizing a quality system in a company is to document the processes. Creating process documents forces the process to be thought through, exposes holes in it that need to be fixed and forces a consistency in how the process runs.

In my company, though, I have not yet done anything so I do not have any methods to document. Rather than just running off and doing things, I am trying to develop the processes on paper and think them through before I try to execute a critical business function. I am finding this approach difficult and rewarding at the same time.

Taking this approach of doing a high degree of planning prior to execution slows things down. It is frustrating to see tasks that need to be completed, but delay doing them in order to design the process to do them right. In addition, I am still in start-up mode and have no revenue yet. The bank account is draining while I am sitting at my desk making flowcharts. I am sticking with this approach, though.

I continue with this approach for several reasons. First, each time I sit down to look at how something should be done, I find that there are issues later in the process that are not readily visible in the early stages. Changing these early stages to methods that are sometimes seemingly inefficient can often save me a tremendous amount of time and rework a few days later. In almost every case where I have stopped doing something to sit down and design the process, I have found that the payback on that investment is usually just a few days. It helps that I am starting with a blank piece of paper and a background in quality systems. It is amazing how quickly a fundamental quality system can be designed and documented when you don't have to run around for days trying to interview people that know how little portions of the process work. I also am beginning to see how building a quality system up front is going to support rapid growth in the company.

Right now, I am a one-man show-sales clerk, receiver, assembler, designer and janitor. I am really enjoying doing all these different functions now, but I will be ready to move on soon. Designing quality systems up front allows me to quickly edit and refine them. According to my plans, these documents will be a fundamental part of my growth plan. I will be able to hire new people and have them running these systems correctly in a short amount of time. Many companies experience significant growing pains because key processes are run off "tribal knowledge." The owners of this knowledge often don't want to share the power that comes with being the only person that knows how a system works. This situation stifles growth.

I like to spend time designing and documenting processes up-front because it allows me to set it up, refine it a little and then move on. Putting a quality system in place allows most of my business to run on autopilot. When I design a process, I am very careful to develop ongoing audits of the process and automated data reporting on the process. Once those things are done, I rarely have to involve myself with that process again. This allows me to focus on change management that fosters growth instead of process maintenance that fosters stagnation.

I wish I had approached process problems differently when I was working in an established business. I was always investigating process problems and fixing holes here and there. Looking back, it seems that in many cases, after I fixed a hole in the process, I should have spent more time asking myself how the process should ideally work. I think that in many cases, overhauling the process to the ideal one, often would have been very doable and would have yielded many of the same benefits that I am seeing now in my small company.

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