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Maintaining a detailed record of processes and procedures can ensure a company’s continued viability in times of tragedy or crisis.
That insight comes from Kathy Nielsen, owner of Operating Excellence LLC, a consulting firm for the trades. In her work and travels, Nielsen has witnessed firsthand the problems caused when the departure of an employee leaves others wondering how to do that job.
Nielsen promises that being proactive will prepare and protect a company when the unexpected occurs. She calls it her “hit by a truck theory.” As in, what happens if you are hit by a truck and someone has to take over your duties?
“Those things happen,” Nielsen said on a recent ServiceTitan Webinar, Kathy Nielsen’s ‘Hit-by-a-Truck’ Approach to SOPs. “We hate it. We don’t plan for it. We don’t want it. We pray against it. But it happens.”
A business that doesn’t prepare for sudden change—a death, illness or resignation—takes unnecessary risk. A business that actively prepares for any eventuality limits vulnerability and sets the stage for growth.
Nielsen, who goes by the moniker Chicken Lady, spent 20 years in the trades before opening her consulting business. Among her duties: CSR, dispatcher, bookkeeper, office manager and general manager.
When she was a GM, two technicians bought the company. As one new owner studied payroll, he realized he was lost. So he sought her help.
“When I sat down to teach him, he said, ‘Wow, you just wrap this up in a bow,’” Nielsen said. “I wasn’t sure if I should be complimented or ticked off.”
As she thought, she realized that bow is essential.
“I believe every task with a company should (be) in writing,” Nielsen said. “How do they do that task? When do they do that task? So that on any given day somebody could sit down and do that if they had to.”
Nielsen knows of a company where the accountant had a heart attack and died on Christmas Eve. Facing year-end, taxes and payroll, the company realized nobody knew what to do, and there was no record of what to do.
Another company did not allow its payroll person to take off during payroll week; one week the job had to be done from a hospital bed.
“It is critical to get information down in a way that everybody could have it, and get to it if they need to,” she said.
More than a job description
Nielsen stressed that tasks are not the same as what is in a job description. A CSR, she said, answers phones, books jobs and manages memberships. But each CSR may have assumed tasks that fit their strengths—filing warranties, handling outbound calls, etc. They do those tasks almost reflexively, the habit part of the daily routine. But if there is no record of the routine, the next person won’t know what to do.
She recalled visiting a company on a Monday where the bookkeeper had quit two days earlier. The company asked her to help with payroll.
“Wouldn't it have been much better if we could have pulled out a piece of paper and sat down and said, ‘OK, we're going to do payroll, here's what we do”? she said.
This company was no lone wolf. On the webinar, 90 percent of respondents said they did not have procedures and processes recorded and stored safely.
Nielsen offered a six-step process to achieving the goal:
1. Have each person write what they do.
“This is literal,” Nielsen said. “This is every task, no matter how small or insignificant.”
Her example: Opening in the morning might seem like just opening the doors, until you’re the person not familiar with how to input the code to unlock the doors, turn off the alarm, start the computers, clock in, transfer phones, turn on the lights.
“It’s literally what you do at each step,” she said. “We may think this is unimportant, but it’s not.”
She strongly recommends owners do the same.
“What if something happens to you?” Nielsen said. “The company has to go on.”
2. Write when they do the task.
It could be daily, weekly or monthly. The individual taking over that task for the first time needs to know.
3. Write why they do it.
“People need to know because why they do it affects what people do down the line,” Nielsen said. “If it's for a new hire, if it's for customer experience, if it's for payroll, those kinds of things are why do you do it.”
4. Rate the task on a scale of one to five, with one being most critical, five least.
It is important to remember that not everything is critically important; there are degrees. Remembering Nielsen’s key theory helps here.
“If you got hit by a truck, which of your (tasks) would cause the greatest problems, costs, or upset customers or employees?” she said. “That's how I judge it.”
5. Make a checklist for the task.
This lists the critical things needed for the task, which can be checked off as completed.
“Again, it's literal,” she said. “Booking a call in ServiceTitan. You open up ServiceTitan, you click on call booking, then you click on the customer name. Every point, every click, what is that?”
6. Make it uniform.
Assigning one person in the company to set up each SOP, or standard operating procedure, helps make them all uniform, which in turn helps everyone understand how to complete different tasks. The final product can be a Word document, a PDF or any other platform the company uses. Just make it the same. Consistency, she said, breeds accuracy.
“Let's use Word, for example,” she said. “I create a Word document for each different task, I'm going to save it in a file where not everybody can make changes. I'm going to give it to people in a PDF where they can't edit it.”
Most essential? Do it first
Her recommendation for bringing all six steps to completion? Make a realistic goal for getting them done and complete the essential tasks first.
“Payroll,” she said, “is more important than who to call when the copier breaks down.”
Once the six steps are completed, the SOPs should be tested. But don’t have the person who created the SOP test it; instead have someone unfamiliar do it. This ensures anyone can understand the steps.
When the process is complete, a company should have a readily available and understandable “book” of tasks, living insurance if that truck heads the wrong way on a one-way street.
“At any given moment you could go into that file, grab that piece of paper, and sit down at the desk and do that job,” Nielsen said. “Do you think you would sleep better at night if you knew that all of this was there?
“I know I did.”
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