Simple tools that can help avoid problems

When our son, Patrick, was in the Air Force, he worked on F-15 fighter jet avionics systems. Everyone who touched one of those airplanes was required to fill out a checklist and sign it. If something went wrong, the powers-that-be had a written record of who did what and when.

After a crash occurred (thankfully, the pilot ejected safely), every person who had recently worked on that plane, including Patrick, was interviewed. This is a control system the Air Force has put in place to help save pilots’ lives and prevent accidents from ever happening.

Few businesses deal in life-or-death situations like safely maintaining airplanes, but your company’s systems and controls can have a huge impact on how well it operates and help reduce problems. Here are some examples we’ve seen where adequate controls were lacking:

Large amounts of time were being wasted at one company due to frequent mistakes, which adversely impacted profits.

Customers were lost because of inconsistencies resulting from having no guidelines for handling complaints.

A business owner wanted to grow his business but lacked time and energy to do more. He was reluctant to delegate responsibilities to others, fearing something important would fall through the cracks.

A contractor’s trucks routinely returned to the shop with tools missing.

Confusion reigned because different people handled the same task using different procedures.

In each of these cases, systems and controls could have prevented problems that resulted. Let’s look at some simple tools that could be implemented to prevent these types of occurrences:

Standard Operating Procedures (SOP): In case you’re unfamiliar with this term, Wikipedia defines an SOP as “a written document or instruction detailing all steps and activities of a process or procedure.” SOPs can be extremely helpful for your business, particularly if you want to be able to delegate work to others or when employees are absent. When procedures are laid out in a written format with steps clearly documented, the likelihood increases that virtually anyone could take over those tasks if the need arose.

Laddie is a partner in Advantage Manufacturing, which is certified by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization). In manufacturing, this certification requires the documentation of all procedures used in any process that could affect the quality of the product. It’s a lot of work to meet their standards, but it helps to assure that things are done the same way and at a high level of quality. This saves the company time and money in the long run.

Checklists. As with our son’s example, checklists can tell you the progression of work that was completed on a project, who performed the various steps, and when they were done. Checklists can be extremely useful in all parts of your business including operations, sales and marketing, finance, administrative functions and training.

A checklist is basically a “to-do every time” list designed to produce a specific result. The great thing about checklists is that anyone in your organization can use them, with minimal training.

Checks and balances. As we recently discussed in a column dealing with employee theft, no one person should have control over a significant area of your business. In critical areas, it just makes sense to have more than one set of eyes looking at it and checking the work that is done. For example, the person who pays bills should not be the one who balances the checkbook. In the case of an important quote or estimate, if possible, several people should review all parts of the package for accuracy — especially the numbers.

Flowcharts. We’ve helped clients create flow charts for how work flows through their companies, how certain situations should be handled, the chain of command, and procedures to follow. These can be very useful for helping employees understand their job responsibilities or how to handle situations that arise. Flowcharts can be easy to create and prove a visual illustration of how a process moves through the organization.

Systems and controls won’t guarantee that work is always done correctly or that problems will never arise. But they will reduce the likelihood of errors, miscommunication or things falling through the cracks. In our experience, businesses without controls are often out of control. So take a look at your company and see if there are any areas that would benefit from implementing systems and controls.

Laddie and Judy Blaskowski are partners in several businesses, including BusinessTruths Consulting. They are authors of The Step Dynamic: A Powerful Strategy for Successfully Growing Your Business. Judy@BusinessTruths.com.