Love, Hate, and Process

If the words “procedure” and “process” conjure mixed emotions of rage and comfort, you’re not alone. I feel the same way.

Whether as employees or consumers, we’ve all experienced corporate red tape – long chains of command, endless phone call transfers, time-consuming approval processes that slow everything down. Deserved or not, this expectation of inefficiency is a stigma often associated with larger companies, for whom quality control can be a multi-department ordeal.

Small businesses are less likely to get bogged down this way, for one simple reason: complex compliance processes require manpower, something small businesses don’t have.

Kaser Blasting & Coatings is a good example of this. We’re what’s called a job shop. This means we take on lots of small jobs, along with some larger, more industrial projects. Our (hopefully obvious) goal is to provide all customers with high-quality blasting and coatings, regardless of project size, by catching mistakes before they happen. While the goal remains consistent no matter what, our reliance on process really varies according to the size of the project.

We have a lean, close-knit, highly-talented team. I know that the guys on the floor are operating at maximum capacity turning out good work, and there’s very little time or energy available to create and follow detailed flow charts for every single part. We’re agile, and most of the time, it works really well for us… until it doesn’t.  

Some weeks, we’re churning out dozens of small orders every day. The “each man for himself” agility model works very well under these circumstances. Worst case scenario, the risk of rework is slight – even if we occasionally have to take a one-off part back down to bare metal and start over, the time and cost added is minimal.

When a shipment of 200 steel beams comes along, however, it’s time to switch out of agility mode and into process mode.

If we embark on a big job without the proper quality controls in place, every little deviation has the potential to result in hours of rework, which is something we can’t afford. The team has to set aside its normal, independent work habits in favor of a more collective, process-oriented approach. Suddenly, it’s time to consult the notes, standardize the procedures, and create quality control checkpoints along the way.

As we’ve grown, we’ve become better about note-taking. We often refer back to previous projects, to see what worked well and what didn’t. Mistakes are only valuable if we learn from them.

Small business management is all about negotiating fine lines, narrow margins, and gray areas, and this issue is no different. There’s a razor’s edge between wanting to encourage independence and agility on the team, and wanting things to come out right the first time around. Above all, I love routines – they provide the groundwork for consistent quality. The key is knowing when to switch gears from independent, small-project routines to more collective, large-project routines and processes.

I’ve learned that, handled correctly, processes can bring confidence. The team derives a sense of pride and comfort from knowing that we’re doing it right the first time. 

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