Improve productivity by using these simple questions to ensure your business processes and expectations are crystal clear.

Image of Todd Herman

Here's a quick "word association" exercise for you – when I say "expectations," what associated words come to mind? Jot down a few, and then read on.

Some words which likely came to mind include:

  • Setting [expectations]
  • Managing [expectations]
  • Clarifying [expectations]
  • Understanding [expectations]

All these associated words pair nicely with "expectations" and help ensure a consistent interaction between or among parties – whether they are client/service provider, parent/child, teacher/student, or manager/staff.

Process Misconceptions

I've had plenty of opportunities to see and influence interactions – as the head of a client service firm, as the manager of staff, and as the father of two kids – and I'm sure you have, too. Because of my many years of experience with these interactions, I thought I was doing a good job with them – until recently.

As a result of some staff turnover in late 2013 and early 2014, my staff and I have begun overhauling the firm's key management processes (for a fuller discussion of this, please see our April 2014 e-newsletter, Embracing Constraints). During this overhaul – which is still going on – I noticed several things which opened my eyes to the true state of affairs, realizing our processes for obtaining the desired end result were severely lacking in:

  • specificity,
  • examples, and
  • standards of performance.

How had I missed all this? I believe I had been lulled into a false sense of security by several factors:

  • About 4 years ago, we overhauled our performance plan and review process, moving ...
    • From a monolithic annual plan and review with broad and vague goals,
    • To a svelte single-page quarterly plan and review with specific and measurable goals.
  • Several of my key staff had over 10 years' experience with the firm, and thus I assumed they knew both my expectations and how to perform their responsibilities.
    • We are a small firm, and thus would have few complex processes.

Myths Underlying Misconceptions

Looking back over all this, I see I had fallen prey to three myths:

  • Myth of Sufficient Documentation – Just because our performance plan and review process covered a shorter duration and was simpler and more focused, staff still did not have sufficient documentation to perform the key tasks necessary to support the business and its infrastructure.
  • Myth of Longevity– The length of a person's tenure with the firm guarantees neither knowledge of my expectations, nor knowledge of how to perform key tasks efficiently and effectively.
  • Myth of Smallness & Simplicity – Even a small firm has a surprisingly large number of complex processes.

Our new management processes rely on college students to perform key tasks – and we've found some great folks, who are eager to get invaluable real-world experience, and are willing to be stretched, challenged, and developed.

While my former staff did have process documentation in place, it presumed they would be performing the work. Once this presumption vanished and college students were introduced – with expectations for turnover built into the positions – the documentation was insufficient for our new staffing plan.

Past Documentation Procedure ...

Let's consider a process common to every business – processing payroll.

In the past, the following would have been sufficient to document the process for handling payroll:

  • On the third business day prior to the pay date:
    • Ensure salaried and hourly persons have prepared and submitted their time sheets.
    • Determine hourly time cutoff date for the upcoming payroll – calculate these hours, and also add the post-cutoff hours for prior payroll period.
    • Determine and log vacation hours, work hours, raises, bonuses, and changes in benefit elections and tax withholdings into the online payroll system.
    • Print and review reports for accuracy of info entered and overall reasonableness.
  • • On the second business day prior to the pay date:
    • Check the payroll account balance.
    • Submit the payroll for processing and direct deposit.
    • Print "Earnings Statement" and stuff in envelopes to mail or give to employees.

This is not a bad process description, because it's accurate and it's clear.

... Suddenly Revealed to be Murky

And then it hit me – given my firm's new staffing model, the documented process must be crystal clear.

The payroll process example was not crystal clear, since it assumed knowledge and experience a college student lacks. Successfully processing payroll requires ...

  • Grasping Unfamiliar Concepts – Understanding the various types of withholdings and deductions, and how to handle them.
  • Good Interpretation and Judgement – Interpreting what employees meant in recording their time, even if the "exact correct" protocol wasn't followed.
  • Decoding Lingo - Understanding abbreviations and "lingo" used in payroll systems.
  • Navigating a Bewildering System – Navigating the payroll system's screens – which are much more complex than any general ledger system – to find desired functionality.

In short, all this requires skills not taught in school.

Crystal Clear Process

"Crystal clear." That phrase caused an image of a diamond to pop into my mind, triggering several associations:

web diamond

  • Solid.
  • Stable.
  • Transparent.

Those adjectives are the essence of "crystallize" – when carbon is converted to crystal form, it becomes solid, stable (from a chemical perspective), and transparent. In short, carbon becomes a diamond.

Crystallizing expectations for processing payroll is VERY different from merely "setting expectations" or "clarifying expectations." "Set" and "clarify" are "soft" compared to the "hard" inherent in "crystallize."

With the visual of a diamond in mind, we are now documenting all our key processes with the detail and examples required to permit easy transition of responsibilities between our college student employees.

Question Your Process

So, if you are unsure whether your expectations, or your staff's processes, are crystal clear, ask yourself whether they are ...

  • Solid – Are they printed in hard-copy? Immediately accessible to you or others? Easily shared and used?
  • Stable – Do they cover in detail what is expected, and how and when to perform the task?
  • Transparent – Can a new person immediately walk into the position, open the "job aid" handbook for the position, and begin working?

If all your answers are "yes," congratulations! Your expectations have been clearly defined and communicated, and your staff should be performing tasks efficiently and effectively.

If not, assume you have staff turnover – because eventually, you will – and then assess the efficiency of your area and the resiliency of your processes. What does this look like? If you don't like what you see, now is a good time to start crystallizing expectations.



Todd L. Herman