Hiring and Growth

How to Build a Scalable Process or Workflow

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
A woman tends flowers.

Years before I got there, when the book production plant was relatively small, a line employee made a mistake that cost the company tens of thousands of dollars. In response, the owner decided that a supervisor would have to sign off on product quality before every job. 

This reaction was understandable, and it worked when the facility had one production line that ran a job or two a day. But it didn’t work when there were five production lines that ran dozens of jobs per shift—and often sat idle waiting for supervisory approval. It was a process that wasn’t scalable.

Unscalable workflows and processes are a common challenge, especially with startups and small businesses. What works today—when you have fewer employees, fewer levels, fewer customers, fewer everything—no longer works when your business has grown.

So how can you create a process that will be effective now and still be efficient when your business has grown? Here are five tips.

1. Eliminate multiple “touches.”

Capacity challenges often create workflow delays. Say you run an e-commerce business and a heavy influx of orders means you need to expedite shipping to meet delivery dates. One way to deal with the decisions involved could be to require employees to get approval before shipping via overnight instead of ground. This way you can decide if other means, like re-prioritizing order of the day’s fulfillment list, makes sense.

But that also means the problem requires multiple touches: the initial employee, you, an employee from another department… all of which likely costs more than upgrading the shipping method.

Whenever possible, create processes with one touch point. In this case, that might translate to giving employees the authority to expedite shipping up to a certain cost amount, or to upgrade the shipping method on a certain number of packages per day. Establish parameters, and trust employees to work within those parameters.

When you trust your employees to do their job well, engagement tends to improve—which means you’ll have more time to figure out additional ways to improve overall productivity so your business can better handle increased demand. Because too heavy a workload is a great problem to have.

2. Determine who is the best person to make decisions.

In my case, that meant deciding that line operators had the responsibility—and authority— for making quality decisions. They knew the customer’s job specifications. They knew our product standards. They didn’t need me (or anyone else) to decide whether a job was okay to run.

Line operators were in the best position to make those decisions. Moreover, they appreciated being trusted, since needing someone to approve your work feels like being back in kindergarten.

Scalable processes place broad responsibility where it belongs: with the people who actually do the work.

If you’re worried about your employees exceeding their responsibility, or making mistakes, no problem: check in, monitor, and provide feedback when necessary. Helping employees improve and develop (and as a result, enjoy greater freedom and autonomy) is a much better use of your leadership time.

3. Don’t let technology drive best practices.

It’s tempting to streamline or automate a process by adding software or other technology.  But that only makes sense if the tools you add support, rather than drive, the process.

Here’s a recent real-life example: I toured a manufacturing plant where the introduction of data collection changed how employees physically reconfigured machinery to run different products. While certain aspects of data collection were more efficient, overall productivity dropped since the job changeover process was no longer as efficient as possible. And overall productivity mattered a lot more than how quickly certain data was collected.

Adding a tool should never slow employees down. At a minimum, that tool should make no difference on overall productivity, cost, or quality. Instead, determine the best way to do what needs to be done—and then look for ways to automate or improve ancillary functions.

4. Decide what doesn’t need to be done.

Eliminating signoffs is one example. Determining who will make decisions and trusting that person to in fact (rather than theory) act on those decisions is another.

But don’t stop there. Complexity is the enemy of scalability: the more steps, tasks, and touch points involved in a process, the more difficult that process is to scale. Before you create new processes, evaluate your current workflow, and determine what you can eliminate. 

Let’s say you run an HVAC service company. When a customer calls, someone creates a work ticket. After performing the work, a service tech completes the ticket and they make note of the time, materials, parts, etc. after performing the work. Then someone (an administrator) uses the ticket to generate an invoice. That system may work just fine up to a point. But if your business grows and you need to add ten service techs, how much will your administrative time increase? A lot. But not if you streamline the process by creating a workflow where, say, service techs complete work tickets that automatically generate and send invoices. Sure, they will need hourly rate costs, as well as parts costs… but someone already has that information. And someone is in charge of keeping that information up to date.

Instead of having the administrator fill in costs and generate invoices, have that person populate and maintain a database—one that could be as simple as a spreadsheet— that helps techs complete the cost portion of the work ticket that generates an invoice. Techs are already “touching” the work ticket; adding a few more entries is incremental.

This also eliminates the need for an administrator to ask a service tech questions about missing or unclear information. The service tech is best placed to know what was done, when, and with what materials.

This is a process that is scalable: one database, one workflow, accessed and used by as many service techs as you may eventually employ.

5. The bottom line? Always start with the bottom line.

Scalable workflows cut costs and don’t create unintended consequences downstream. 

Before you change a process or introduce a new workflow, ask yourself at least three “What if?” questions, like: 

  1. What if we add employees? 
  2. What if our workload doubles? 
  3. What if our customer needs change?

For example, in the early days of a startup you may have the time and desire to field every customer complaint because you can ensure that their concerns are addressed and you can discover how to improve your business based on their experiences. But answering every customer call won’t be feasible when your business grows. You may need to add customer service reps. And you can certainly “scale” reps, but at considerable cost. Therefore, you may also decide to create an FAQ section on your website to help address common questions and concerns, or videos detailing product setup and use. That should free up time for your customer service reps to deal with more complicated or unique customer needs.

The key is to focus first on effectiveness. Then think about time, cost, and resource efficiency. Because the best scalable processes and workflows are effective and efficient.

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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