When “Manual Automation” beats Coding up a Solution
When you start a business, it’s all about throwing things at the wall and seeing if it sticks.
You've launched a new app, and you get your first five paying customers. You excitedly chat with each of them as part of their concierge onboarding.
Or you land your first Rails consulting gig, and you’re excited to start building this new thing.
After a while, a little luck and a lot of sweat, the business starts going pretty well. The customers stick around, and a few more start joining them.
Your identity goes from “I have no idea what I’m doing” to “I’m a business, man!”. You may might invest in business cards, and you most certainly will have t-shirts.
Yet, as you revel in your new identity, things start piling up. It’s hard to personally write to each new customer if you’re signing up 10, 25 or 100 new customer every week.
It’s hard to give personal attention to new client projects when you’re juggling demands from past customers AND you have three new projects on the go.
It’s at this point when you’re transitioning from ‘throwing things at walls and seeing if they will stick’ stage to the ‘smooth, finely-tuned business machine’ stage that things can start to feel overwhelming.
You’ll have hundreds of emails, and honestly you’d prefer NOT to look at them.
Even answering one feels completely overwhelming. You’re divided between working in the business (the fun stuff) and working on your business (lawyers, accountants, systems, marketing, pitching clients - less fun for many!).
The solution, of course, is to start delegating things to others.
But it’s really hard - will you end up spending all your time just making sure things are done right? Won’t you end up being an ‘inspector of things’ rather a ‘builder of things’?
Kim Jong Un is Chief Inspector of Things. Don’t be him!
Wouldn’t you be better off doing it yourself and have it done faster, anyway?
Here’s where checklists can save you. Otherwise called standard operating procedures or standard work procedures.
These aren’t your “to-do” lists, because those items are often just once-off tasks.
Instead, they are definitions of tasks and processes that you have to repeat in order to deliver value.
The problem with “let’s just code up a solution”
The natural tendency of engineers is to think about how you could automate the process by coding up a quick solution.
Hook up a few API calls, schedule a Cron job and you’ll be able to sit back as your code does all the work.
As Patrick McKenzie noted over at Kalzumeus:
“code, after you’ve written it, it’s nice that it keeps executing for forever. The downside is it keeps executing for forever. You need to maintain it.”.
Instead, he often just writes down the process step-by-step and hands it off to someone else to carry out.
The first few times he might monitor the results, but soon it’s practically automatic.
You can end up spending days automating a job with code, whereas it could be outsourced to a person with more reliable results, and you’d have more energy to focus on work that’s core to your business.
Checklists Free Up “Mental Ram”
Every week, I log into my supermarket account, order the same list of items and throw any additional items I need on top. Then, it gets delivered a few days later.
It’s a checklist of items I know I’ll need, and it makes it far easier to complete the task, because I don’t need to spend mental energy on thinking about what should go into the list.
On top of that, there’s something about going through a list and ticking off items that feels great. It also adds momentum, because you don’t need to think about it.
You just follow the steps, and you’re done!
Start with Recurring Problems
Is a problem coming up again and again? It’s likely you can turn the solution into a checklist, a wiki or an email template.
Hiring more than usual? New employees need access to a fairly defined set of tools - an email account, company stickers and a t-shirt.
Customer support requests often fit a 80/20 distribution, meaning that a handful of email templates will satisfy a lot of requests.
Instead of constantly sending ‘email updates’, you can have defined operating principles in a wiki.
Test them in the Real World and Adapt as Necessary
You won’t have much success if you attempt to force a checklist on others without any regard to practical realities. It has to be a living document that evolves based on experience.
One approach is to go through the entire task step-by-step and write down each step as you go.
Sam Carpenter of Work the System tells the story of how one of his employees lost a large cheque from a client.
He found that he was personally spending 2 hours each week depositing cheques, and yet he had no way of knowing if a cheque was lost.
He wrote down each individual step in the process, and found that there were 53 steps involved in depositing a cheque. He then worked on reducing the amount of steps in the process. Based on this, he was able to outsource depositing cheques and gain back 2 hours of his life every week.
Examples You Can Use
As your company grows, meetings might start creeping in. First, it’s just two people, and it’s fine just to grab a coffee and have a chat.
But suddenly, you’re having meetings with 5 people in the room. The meeting drags on and on, people get ‘hangry’ (hungry and angry together).
Over at Harvard Business Review, they put together a checklist for meetings, so you’ll conduct more focused, action-oriented meetings. It’s similar to Bruce Harpham’s suggestion of meeting agenda templates in his recent interview here at Planio.
Here’s an example of the checklist for an issue in Planio:
You can add Checklist templates to Planio, so you can add an entire checklist to a new issue with one click. More here!
Businesses hiring quite frequently for similar roles, such as rapidly growing agencies, can create hiring checklists, so they can quickly assess whether candidates are a good fit or not.
Content Harmony created a checklist for hiring freelancers along with specific items for writers, designers and developers.
However, you can think beyond just checklists. You can create standard operating procedures using email templates, wikis, workflows or even forums.
Don’t Repeat Yourself In Email
For example, at Planio, we have an FAQ section with answers to many of our customers’ most commonly asked questions. Each answer is available as a template in the CRM & Helpdesk app, so we can quickly drop them into answers to customer emails.
In Gmail, you can enable Canned Responses in the Labs sections of settings, so you can save common email templates and paste them in with a click when you’re replying to emails.
Wikis for Keeping Everyone in the Loop
Companies such as Berkshire Hathaway use company-wide wikis to update employees on operational issues, because they’re much more flexible and organic than repeatedly sending out email updates.
At Planio, we’re using wikis to document our market research and keep all our ideas in one place.
I’ve found that I’m much more likely to go back and read past research when it’s laid out in a wiki, rather than when it’s all in an Excel sheet or Google doc.
And it’s easier for someone else to quickly understand our current position, strategy and tactics.
Slowly Build Up Your Processes and Systems Over Time
Complicated, massive and successful businesses usually have process charts that would scare the most hardened business process fangirl.
And yet the business is just a large collection of simple subsystems working together, and the people who make those systems work.
Therefore, you don’t need to build the entire system at once. You can slowly add smaller sub-systems in the forms of checklists and standard operating procedures. And you can adapt them as your organization grows.