People And/In/Versus Processes

This is the second article in a series detailing the process of successfully engaging with a freelancer. The first article is here. My previous series talked about the opportunity and the fears of small business owners when thinking about dealing with freelancers. This series builds on that one, and goes into more detail.

If you are following along with this series, you may have a business process analyzed and described to some level of detail. Most business processes have a human element. You may have a salesperson interacting with customers. You may have a clerk transferring data from system to system. You may have labour that needs to be performed.

I found this description of a wasteful business process, written by Ben Evans, who doesn’t often deal with small businesses:

The example I often give here is of a VP of Something or Other in a big company who every month downloads data from an internal system into a CSV, imports that into Excel and makes charts, pastes the charts into PowerPoint and makes slides and bullets, and then emails the PPT to 20 people. Tell this person that they could switch to Google Docs and they’ll laugh at you; tell them that they could do it on an iPad and they’ll fall off their chair laughing. But really, that monthly PowerPoint status report should be a live SaaS dashboard that’s always up-to-date, machine learning should trigger alerts for any unexpected and important changes, and the 10 meg email should be a Slack channel. Now ask them again if they want an iPad.

It’s almost depressing how far ahead some tech-enabled companies are in terms of the state of the art. Most of my clients would relate to the VP with Office, or perhaps consider themselves one step ahead with Google Docs. I, wearing my Freelancer hat, would love to help you build the SaaS dashboard, but in the meantime, let’s see if we can learn from people like Ben Evans and their view of the world.

  1. People don’t need to do routine data work.

If your employees are copying, pasting, reformatting, and emailing, they are literally wasting time and money. Each of those steps can be automated, and their time can be freed for more important duties.

2. People need to enter the data into the system somehow.

You may have an unlimited budget for a smart factory setup, but in that case, just go ahead and talk to the enterprise salesperson that will set everything up for you. For the rest of us, the most important step in data processing is entering the data correctly the first time. That is often not what your employees see as their role, so unless everyone understands the importance of the data, they will not be motivated to do the data entry task.

3. People are used to smartphones and frictionless computing.

If you are expecting people to use a complicated system to do a small task, you are asking for headaches. We all know that the system can be simple, since we interact with social media and e-commerce daily. There must be a way to make your business tools as simple as a Snapchat post.

4. The data may make the decision for the person. Remove that decision to prevent errors.

If your employees are using a simple if-then grid to determine the next step in the process, it is possible that the decision and a few steps around it can be automated.

5. The tool can and should match the environment.

Bar-code scanner? RFID reader? Smart-phone app that uploads a photo or a signature? GPS + timestamp logger?

Once you assume your employee has a smartphone on his or her person, and you investigate some simple software or hardware extensions to that pocket supercomputer, you can make the data entry task much simpler, quicker and less mistake-prone.

The key is not to import the entire process into that smartphone. Build a custom app or webpage that accepts only the input that is expected, and use accessories that make sense in the work environment. Suddenly data entry is just a couple of screen taps on a phone, and you end up with more (and more accurate) information than you would have if the employee sat down at a PC or filled in a paper form.

6. People can’t all be replaced.

Some of them probably can. In fact, if you are the owner, you should be hoping that you can be replaced for the entirety of your vacation time! But people make deals, people make emotional connections, people make interacting with your business memorable. People use skill to solve hard problems. People use creativity to make magic. Celebrate your people, and find ways to free them from drudgery, while keeping the data (the real lifeblood of your business) flowing.

In the next article, I will focus on how information flows through a business, often in unofficial, unseen ways. Understanding the flow of data will lead you to understanding your business in a whole new way.