Why is the elephant afraid of the mouse?


A case study in Setting up a small professional services office

Forgive me if you have not heard of the story about the elephant who is afraid of the mouse.  The Discovery Channel says this tale started in 77 A.D. by Pliny the Elder who said, “The elephant hates the mouse above all other creatures.” Over time it was found that any small animal will startle an elephant due mainly to their poor eye sight.  The small elephant moves so fast on the ground that it is hard for the elephant to focus on thus it is often startled by a mouse as it does not know what it is.

In my mind bid business is like the elephant: large, lumbering, slow to change, great at large projects, and not always able to see the smaller picture.  When you set up a large business structure you can centralize many tasks and hire the best personal available for each particular job.  A small business is like the mouse, darting here and there, working on all small tasks individually, and struggling to stay out from under the feet of the lumbering giants above them.

Nowhere in a business is this more evident than when that business is trying to set up the support services for the small business that have nothing to do with the nature of the small business.  Michael E. Gerber touched on a very important subject with “The E Myth” The E-Myth (“Entrepreneurial Myth”) is the mistaken belief that most businesses are started by people with tangible business skills, when in fact most are started by “technicians” who know nothing about running a business. Hence most fail.

Since the book was written many E Myth consulting shops has popped up where they will come in to a small business and tell them what they need to become better business people.  What I have found, however, is that many of these consulting shops are run by people with business degrees but very little understanding in the operations, the mechanics, the inner working, and the simple every day requirements with leading people to get them to accept the “new” way of doing business.  There is also the very simple requirement that many small businesses do not have the resources to hire the best possible people for each position in their company.  Sometimes you have to hire someone who is good at most things and gets by in others because you can only afford one person.

This is where I have found the most success working with various small businesses.  It may be the nuclear engineer in me or my fascination with instructions but I have found that most people want to do the best job as long as someone shows them how.

Where the E Myth consultants and I agree is on the implementation of systems. Yet – here is the key question … how do you get these systems put in place without spending all of your money, and while still conducting business that makes money?

The Answer Is: A little bit at a time!!!!!

Who knows your business better then you do?  The simple answer is … NOBODY!! I can think of almost no situation where a company called me in to solve a problem and the answer was not within themselves or one of their employees and it just took coxing to come out.

When I am called in to help a company set up there operating procedures I first interview each employee to get a baseline of their job and what it is they do.  From this I ask them to write down all of the tasks they do that they can remember.  Often times the employees are amazed at the amount of tasks they accomplish.  We write these tasks down and I tell them that as they do tasks throughout the day to look at their list and make sure that the tasks are on that list.

After a few days most of the tasks will be captured for each of the workers.  I then gather all of the tasks and put them into a file for that position.

We then have a meeting with the owners, managers, and employees where we establish how much time we can dedicate to writing the steps for each of the identified tasks.  With everyone agreeing to the timeline we work with each individual and set a specific timeline for when their tasks breakdowns must be completed.

As an example, if one employee has identified that there are 47 different tasks they complete and that 33 of those tasks are very simple with maybe only 10 or 12 steps then we would assume that with the 30 minutes the owners and managers give them each day to work on writing these steps that they can complete those 23 in one week.  The remaining 14 are split about 50/50 with intermediate and difficult tasks so it will take two weeks to complete the remaining tasks.

We then set up that timeline and each day I check in with each employee to ensure they have taken the required steps.  If they have not taken the proper steps then we discuss why.  I give them a progress report and if they are falling behind I give them counseling to let them know how important it is to complete these task write-ups.  As we have buy in from the owners and managers this can become disciplinary action in their record and may even lead to termination if they do not correct their actions.

During the time that write-ups are being conducted it is very common for the employees to discover more things that they do that they did not remember during the original review.  We will add those to the overall list and adjust the due date accordingly.

Once all task write-ups are collected I look through each of them to look for punctuation and grammar errors and reach back out to the employee for clarity.  I will then take the write-ups and turn them into proper procedures.  We then take the procedures and give them to another employee to see if that employee is able to accomplish the task by only using the procedure.  This is where we often find the incumbent knowledge that an employee often does not realize they have.

An example would be knowing that a vendor can only be contacted on Tuesday’s between 3pm and 5pm, that Lucy at Vendor B is the one who gets our orders in quicker, orders made on weekends have weekend delivery charges, and many other things.  These little notes get entered into the steps to provide a place where incumbent experience can be captured.  When the final procedures are produced we leave room for the employee to enter more notes that can be put into later editions of the procedures.

After we check the procedures for usability we then put the procedures online with one certified edition printed and placed into a binder.  This binder is then used by the employees when they conduct all tasks.  Through this procedure we could determine that some tasks are better left with another employee or similar tasks can be grouped to be conducted at the same time thus saving time and increasing efficiency.

These final task binders can be used when an employee goes on vacation, is sick, leaves, or is terminated.  Employee evaluations are easier because there is a clear standard of what they are to accomplish.  Employees are happier because their job description is clear and they know what is expected from them each day and in each occurrence.

The key to all of this is holding employees accountable for what is clearly stated.  When either side of that is not available then that is when chaos can reign.

Implementing this system to capture the tasks is essential for any size business but with a small business this is akin to survival.  In a large business you can have many people accomplishing the same task but in a small business you often have one person completing many tasks.

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