Systematize One Process at a Time

It can seem like such an insurmountable burden to develop business systems, operational policies and procedures -- including finalizing them in writing, which is an essential step -- but the thing is, you don't need to do this for every single aspect of your business. Here are some quick tips about how to tackle a little system-building without feeling overwhelmed.

  1. Start with your overall personal goals and get clear on how much time you want to spend on the business. The less hours you want to work, the more efficient you'll have to be, right? Exactly.
  2. Next, look at what aspects of the business are taking you the most time -- especially things that really seem they shouldn't take so much time. Focus on these.
  3. Set a goal of how many systems you're going to develop. My advice? Start with one or two. The point is mostly to stop ignoring this task altogether. Start small!
  4. Starting with the most time-consuming/inefficient/vexing area, focus on figuring out where things get complicated, duplicated, where errors tend to crop up, or in general things go wack. Talk with others (if any) in your biz to flush out where the problems lurk -- make it a long business lunch at a swell restaurant where you can spread out for a few hours. Have wine with lunch! In other words, this doesn't need to be a dour business meeting. (Bear in mind your partner/spouse might also have insight, so if business conversations are kosher between you two (with some couples, business talk can be bad news), ask her/him for any ideas on improving your process(es).)
  5. Come up with some simple procedures (checklists are great) to avoid the problems you identified. For example, if you're constantly having to call clients on the phone to get information that should have been collected in the first place, develop a 7-point checklist for what information to collect from a new customer, and what information to provide to them. Or if you're fielding endless questions from your office assistant about bookkeeping issues, write out a step-by-step description of how certain types of expenses should be entered into your bookkeeping software.

The point here is to focus on the things that take the most time and/or tend to be "problem" areas of your business. You don't need an encyclopedic operations manual -- not at all! Just a few simple checklists and step-by-step procedures, kept in a slim binder with enough copies for key staff and managers, can make a major difference in how efficiently your business runs. Depending on lots of different factors you might decide to give copies to all staff, or just let the department manager decide how to train staff on the procedures. But Step 1 is coming up with the procedure in the first place.

And don't feel bad if you have your head in the sand about tackling these sorts of system/organizational issues. Tons of small business owners blow this stuff off for years. (But these are the owners who tend to be the ones still working too much, many years into business.) Hopefully by following the advice above and focusing just on one or two areas, the whole concept of "systems" will no longer freak you out. And believe me, once you get a system or two implemented, you'll start feeling all tingly and freer almost immediately.

Quick note: I'm not talking about an employee handbook here, which would include important information and policies about sick leave, vacation, employee reviews, grievance procedures, etc. And with an employee manual, all staff should get a copy, not just key managers. Nolo has great resources on employee handbooks; go to and search for "employee handbook".