Friday, February 28, 2014

SOP Friday: Making Exceptions to SOPs

We Get Mail

Andrew dropped me a note to suggest that I cover exceptions to the rules. In other words, when is it okay to not follow the Standard Operating Procedures you've laid out?

You might be surprised to hear me say this, but there are lots of exceptions to the rules. Well, to some rules. There are built-in exceptions, emergency exceptions, bad habit exceptions, and common sense exceptions. There are also different kinds of SOPs. Some SOPs must be followed exactly and perfectly each time and some are much more flexible.

First, let's talk about these internal to your company. Then we'll look at how you manage exceptions with clients.

In the big picture, common sense is the most important piece of all of this. SOPs exist to make life easier. Well, life and work. When SOPs get in the way of smooth and efficient operations, then need to be set aside. We'll come back to this.

Built-In Exceptions to SOPs

Some SOPs work best if you can build in the exceptions. For example, we have a very strong policy of working from highest to lowest priority. We don't want people wasting time working on Low-Pri activities when High-Pri activities can be moved forward. Further, we have a well-defined process that says that all service tickets are worked from highest to lowest priority. BUT . . .

We also have a built-in exception to this rule.

When I go to a client's office, I start by looking at all the open tickets they have. If I'm going to go onsite, I will try to knock out all the tickets I can in the time allotted. I'm not going to take care of one high priority item, bill them for an hour, and then leave. In addition to being less efficient in the long run, that would be pretty bad customer service.

So I try to get as many tickets completed as possible. In particular, I make sure that the tasks that require an on-site technician are completed.

This built-in exception makes sure that I give good service. It also makes sure that we address all those medium and low priority service tickets that might not otherwise get any attention.

When you create built-in exceptions, make sure they actually add value to what you're doing. I think the example here is perhaps the most important built-in exception we have. It truly improves our process in several ways.

Emergency Exceptions and Bad Habit Exceptions

Emergency exceptions to SOPs should be rare (of course). Sometimes you just need to cut through the red tape - even if you created the red tape. The problem is that this decision is so subjective. You get to decide what's an emergency. If you're the owner, you don't really have to justify it to anyone.

It is a bad habit to start making exceptions and excuses. Once you go down that road, every day is a series of exceptions to the rules. Pretty soon there's no point in having SOPs at all.

The most common "excuse" given for breaking SOPs is that it's faster to "just do it" rather than follow the established process. It's very much like hiring an employee and then doing all the work yourself because it's faster than training them how to do it. You know intellectually that it's better in the long run to follow the SOP (or train the employee). But right now, today, with this one little task, it's faster to just do it.

The bottom line here is discipline.

I will say: Having employees helps. The favorite employee past time is watching the boss. So if the boss cuts corners, the employees know it's okay to cut corners. Employees will keep you in line. And they will support each other.

Once you have established SOPs and everyone is trained, then you should have the discussion about exceptions. Think of it this way: Once you know all the rules, you can make good decisions about when to break them. But that doesn't change the fact that the rules still need to be followed.

Letting Clients Make Exceptions

Andrew's original question was largely focused on client-related policies and procedures. For example, it's easy to say that you have change your password every 30 days, but many clients simply refuse to follow this. So where do you stand firm and where do you let the client make the rules?

You probably have very few technology-related rules that you impose on your clients. You ask them to switch the backup discs or tapes; you ask them to change their passwords; you ask them to log off and night but leave the machines on; etc. A few very reasonable suggestions.

In fact, every "policy" you give them is either 1) For their own good, or 2) Related to doing business with you.

When it comes to doing things that are in their own interest, you have very little control. You can educate them, remind them, and warn them. But at the end of the day, you can't care more about their network than they do. So if they don't tend to the backup drives, there's very little you can do.

You should protect yourself when clients make certain bad decisions. For example, if a client will not take steps to make sure that they change passwords or backup their data, you need to let them know - in writing - that you can't be responsible for these things.

At the end of the day, the best you can do is to make good recommendations and encourage the client to take your advice. But if they don't want to follow your advice, there's not much you can do.

Comments welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

- - - - -

Next week's topic: How to Track Credit Card Autopayments


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Friday, February 21, 2014

SOP Friday: Team Management of SOPs

One of the most challenging elements of managing documentation with a team is to keep everyone on the same page - so to speak. This is particularly true with processes and procedures. After all, when you create Your Way for setting up a machine, you want to make sure that everyone does it Your Way!

In terms of "managing" SOPs for your team, there are four primary activities you need to address:

1) Creation of SOPs
2) Changing SOPs
3) Sharing active SOPs (This includes training.)
4) Archiving SOPs

1 and 2: Creating and Changing SOPs

The flow chart for all of this is pretty straight forward. Let's say you are going to perform a procedure. First, determine whether there a written procedure already. If yes, execute it. If no, open a template and begin creating the procedure as you execute it. This becomes the first draft of your procedure.

Of course that needs to be stored in an appropriate place so that others can find it, use it, and update it. Thus the procedure becomes a living document. It evolves over time to remain accurate. If it is useful to duplicate this procedure for several clients, then you can create copies that are customized per client. Those are probably stored in individual client folders and not the primary procedure folder.

From time to time procedures become obsolete and are removed from the folders. They should be placed in an archive folder so you can find them if needed, but they are not mixed in with the "live" procedures.

So, from this little narrative, here are the elements you need to create a policy about managing your SOPs. This checklist should be repeated for each team (e.g., finances, sales, tech support):

- Where will the team's SOPs be stored?

- Who is authorized to make changes to procedures (hint: You should justify any answer other than "everyone").

- The last item in every checklist or procedure should be "Update this document"

3 and 4: Sharing and Archiving SOPs

Sharing includes putting things where you can find them AND training employees to use the SOPs. These are both much easier if you have regular employee meetings - such as a regular Monday morning huddle. Sharing includes making sure everyone knows whether they'll find what they're looking for on the Sharefile site, the company's public folder, inside ever note, etc.

Training is Cristal important. With every process, every procedure, and every checklist, you should  make sure that everyone on the team is executing well. That means that they watch someone execute the procedure, then someone watches them execute. Only then are they allowed to execute on their own.

If a procedure is new to the team, the team should go through it together to make sure all questions are answered. This is particularly important if a task used to be reserved for one or two high-level technicians and now everyone on the team is going to perform that task.

Training is also important as your team grows. From time to time it is useful to go through even mundane procedures and make sure everyone knows Your Way of doing things.

Finally, someone on each team needs to be responsible for weeding out old procedures. These might be obsolete (such as testing the backup tapes) or something that is now performed per-client so a universal procedure is no longer relevant. In some cases, you might have a folder for templates that personalized for each client.

Never simply delete old procedures. Move them to the archive folder. You never know what you're going to need some day!

- - - - -

The SOP Mentality

This seems like a lot of activity around SOPs. Just keep it in perspective: This is a lot of activity around standardization of your company. It's a lot of activity around doing things the right way. It's a culture of focuses a little bit every day on the things that will make your company systematically successful!

Related articles:

- The !Tech Directory

- Organizing Company Files and Folders

- Naming Your Processes and Procedures

- Information Sharing

- When Processes and Procedures Become Obsolete

Comments welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

- - - - -

Next topic: Making Exceptions to SOPs


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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Can I Use All Eight Addresses in my 248 Subnet, or Just Five?

This is an interesting question.

Internet Service Providers have long handed out subnets of, which mathematically calculates to eight IP addresses. At the recent SMB TechFest in Orange County I was making a presentation on TCP/IP and I got asked this question:

How Come I Can Only Use Five of the Eight IP Addresses Assigned to Me?

Well . . . for the most part, you CAN use all eight IP addresses. There was a time, a long time ago, when it was discouraged. But you've always been able to do it.

Having said that, it used to be the case that routers needed to be configured to allow the use of all-zeros and all-ones subnets. But ever since Cisco IOS 12, the default is that you can use these address.

I updated my slide deck to explain what's going on here. This is a quick video with the new slides added:

Direct Link to video:

Give it a gander and let me know if you have comment.


Friday, February 14, 2014

SOP Friday: Paid Time Off / Paid Holidays

When you're really small, things like "time off" are not a huge concern. After all, when it's just you there isn't much time off. And when you hire someone, it's just the two of you, so things are (probably) very casual.

But as you company grows, you need to begin thinking about your policies around paid holidays and time off. This falls into the category of "Act like the company you want to become."

Please see the articles on Holiday and Pay Day schedules.

And the article on choosing pay days.

And the article on Hourly vs. Salaried Employees.

Paid Holidays

Here's the most important thing to remember about policies regarding holidays and paid time off: With very few exceptions, you can do whatever you want. Think about the world you live in. There are are people working twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. So you really only have to treat holidays in a special way because you want to.

Next, consider whether you just want to give people the time off, or whether you intend to pay them for that time off. Again, you can pretty much do whatever you want.

But here's the next most important thing to remember: Whatever you do, you must do it consistently. If you treat employees differently, you need to have a written policy to avoid law suits or a run-in with the labor relations board in your state.

The funny thing is: Your policy can be completely absurd, as long as it's written down and followed religiously. You can say "All employees who are the owner's brother in law shall have paid time off for all federally recognized holidays." I don't recommend it, but you can do it.

More importantly, you need to draw some pretty solid lines to divide people into categories and determine the policies for each category. For example, people on salary are treated differently from people who work on an hourly basis. People who are part time are treated differently from people who are full time.

Our "Paid Time Off" policy is very simple.

1) Employees on salary are paid for time off for the holidays listed on our official holiday schedule.

2) Employees who are paid hourly are given time off for the holidays listed on the official holiday schedule, but they are not paid for that time.

That's it.

If you have lots of people who are paid hourly and work full time, you might have a policy something like this:

1) Employees on salary are paid for time off for the holidays listed on our official holiday schedule.

2) Employees who are paid hourly and work a normal schedule of 35 hours or more per week are paid for time off for the holidays listed on our official holiday schedule.

3) Employees who are paid hourly and work a normal schedule of 33 hours or less per week are given time off for the holidays listed on the official holiday schedule, but they are not paid for that time.

Non-Holiday Paid Time Off

Giving additional time off (vacation time) is a different topic altogether. But here again, you just need to be consistent.

First, decide who is eligible to accrue paid time off/vacation time (PTO). It might be just managers, or those who have been with the company for more than a year, or it might be all full time employees. It could even be everyone.

Second, you need to keep track of accumulated PTO. That means you have to have some kind of formula. And you may have different formulas for different people. For example:

1) Full time employees who have been with the company for more than 36 months earn PTO at the rate of two weeks per year

2) Full time employees who have been with the company for 12 to 35 months earn PTO at the rate of one week per year

3) All other employees do earn PTO

Again: Draw a few big lines and decide what you consider to be fair and affordable.

Here are some numbers to consider:

- Full time employment is officially 2080 hours/year (40 hours x 52 weeks)

- One week of PTO = 40 hours; two weeks of PTO = 80 hours

- It makes no sense to earn PTO while exercising PTO, SO: You calculate earning PTO based on the total hours for the year minus the PTO. For example, if someone is earning two weeks off, that means that their PTO accumulates enough during 2000 of work to earn them the other 80 hours of the work year.

- In this example, an employee would earn 1 hour of PTO for every 25 hours worked. If they are on salary you simply assume that they're being paid for 40 hours a week, so they accumulate 1.6 hours of PTO per week.

- If you pay bi-monthly, there are 24 pay periods. If folks are paid hourly, you need to have a spreadsheet to keep track of hours earned and PTO accrued. If they're on salary, then you assume about 83.33 hours per pay period, and they accumulate 3.33 hours of PTO per pay period in order to accrue 80 hours in 50 weeks.

Additional Notes on PTO

I just have three additional thoughts here. I have known more than one person who tracked their accumulated time offer down to the quarter hour. One person even then used that time off to take fifteen minutes here and fifteen minutes there in order to avoid being marked as arriving late for work or late coming back from lunch.

Believe me, this did not happen inside a company I owned. But people like that are out there. Once the organization is large enough, the law of large employee numbers guarantees that you'll find someone who will figure out how to use your system to make your human resources life miserable. Obviously, this is one manifestation of an attitude that says this person doesn't enjoy the job and probably cuts a lot of other corners as well.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who accumulate time off and never take it. You have to decide whether you will force them to take time off, pay them for it, or let it accumulate forever. Some companies limit accumulated time off to a certain number of days or hours. This becomes a "use it or lose it" situation.

The sad part is that these most-dedicated employees actually lose out on this benefit because they can't bring themselves to go on vacation! You know me, I think people need to have well rounded lives. So I encourage them to use up their vacation.

Finally, you have to decide what to do about accumulated time off when someone leaves the company. Do they get to keep it? If they quit, do they get paid for half of it? Putting limits on this kind of this may be regulated by your state or local government, so look into that before you write a policy that could get you in trouble.

- - - - -

This is the kind of topic that seems obvious when you're an employee. But it can be very complicated when you become an employer. It's especially difficult because employers who offer paid time off end up with a certain number of headaches around this topic no matter what. So while trying to give employees and additional benefit, they end up creating a certain level of frustration. Sometimes there are questions of fairness no matter what you do.

Just try to make your policies as clear and fair as you can.

Comments welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

- - - - -

Next week's topic: Team Management of SOPs


Still the best Quick-Start Guide to Managed Services: 

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Michael Gerber to Keynote the 2014 SMB Online Conference

I am so very honored that Michael E. Gerber - author of the awesome book The E-Myth Revisited - will be the keynote speaker for this year's SMB Online Conference: Systematic Success 2014.

In almost every presentation I give, I mention The E-Myth and how influential this book has been on my business and career. Now I am pleased to bring Mr. Gerber to the SMB Community. Here's the press release we put out this week with the official announcement:

Myth Buster Michael Gerber Invigorates Entrepreneurs in Online Conference 

Michael Gerber to Speak at the
SMB Online Conference: Systematic Success 2014
Sacramento, CA, February 11, 2014 – Best-selling technology author Karl Palachuk announced today that Michael Gerber, of E-Myth Revisited fame, will be the keynote speaker in the Systematic Success 2014 online conference in June.

The third annual online event is a business focused conference for I.T. professionals, with 9 business and I.T. consultant experts presenting. Last year’s IT Business Reboot 2013 featured the best business and technology speakers from the U.S. and U.K. and this year’s conference is just as ambitious.

The inclusion of Michael Gerber is a special treat because of his reputation in helping thousands of small business owners successfully transform their businesses into world-class operations, a goal at the heart of this year’s conference.

Gerber has been called “The World’s #1 Small Business Guru” by INC. Magazine. He has spent over 40 years targeting a niche in the small business market. He addresses through books and speaking tours the specific issues small business owners with technical skills encounter, a lack of direction on the small business skills required to run highly successful businesses.

“Conference sessions will cover processes, procedures, and products small business operators require to be successful. We will primarily teach attendees how to systematically document all of their processes” Palachuk says. He adds that “Documentation is extremely important to build a business model that can operate without the business owner doing all of the work, thus allowing for smooth internal growth, potential business sale, and even franchising.”

The online conference runs June 24-26, 2014. Registrations are being accepted now. Attendees can choose to listen live or obtain access to the recorded sessions. In all, the conference will broadcast fifteen hours of programming over the three days.

To learn more about Systematic Success 2014, visit

About Karl Palachuk

Karl Palachuk has written 10 books, including Managed Services in a Month, the number one book for managed services on Amazon for the past five years. He has advised business owners in the small business space for over a decade as an international speaker, blogger, Podcast host, and personal business consultant.

About Small Biz Thoughts

Small Biz Thoughts is the training and content division of Great Little Book Publishing Co., Inc., owned and operated by Karl W. Palachuk. Their programs are geared specifically for the independent I.T. consultants. Their focus on future trends has helped them to build a reputation as a trusted adviser to fans and friends around the world. For more information, visit

Media Contact

Monica Caraway, Marketing Manager
monicac [at]
(916) 995-0450

Of course we have a whole line-up of great speakers this year. Check out the whole list at

Please sign up now while the lowest-ever prices are available for this amazing conference.


Friday, February 07, 2014

SOP Friday: Vendor/Distributor Record Keeping

In a perfect world, everything you need is available electronically, and is easy to search through. So when you need information, it's only a click or two away.

We don't live in that world.

Distributors (Ingram Micro, Synnex, D&H, etc.) are getting better at making information from past purchases available. But this is an area where you can create a very simple, very low-tech solution for tracking the information you need.

First, let's look at the information you need to keep and track.

Let's say you have two primary distributors, such as Ingram and D&H. But occasionally you buy RAM from the Crucial web site or software from CDW's reseller program. In the buying process, you might send purchase orders, receive invoices, and receive packing slips with merchandise.

This information is easily divided into two types: Financial information and merchandise information.

Financial information is primarily tracked through your QuickBooks or other finance tool. Once any disputes are settled, you will probably never need this information again. If you do need it, you'll find it in your system.

Merchandise information is more specific to the items you buy and sell. This is an interesting collection of information that you rarely need. But when you do need it, having it at your fingertips is priceless. For example, you might have a complete list of serial numbers on a packing slip. Or you might have all kinds of detailed information about a server install.

The papers you'll find with these juicy bits of information are primarily invoices and packing slips. Again, invoices might be available electronically, but not necessarily easily available electronically.

You might create a process to scan all these documents into your PSA or into client folders on your SharePoint site. But I don't recommend that. The truth is that you will rarely use these documents, so it's probably not worth creating a lot of work. Keep the documents you already have in paper format and don't fret about the rest.

Here's what I recommend.

1) Whenever you pay an invoice from a distributor, stamp it PAID and write the check number (or other payment information) on it.

2) Whenever you receive a packing slip that includes information you might find useful, add it to the file system.

3) Three-hole punch each of these documents and place them in a binder in chronological order.

If you have a low volume of product sales, you might keep all of these in one binder with a tab for each distributor. If you have a higher volume, you would dedicate one binder for each distributor.

Keep each binder for four years. Then shred the contents.

Using this Information

Here are a few examples of how we've used this information:

- When ordering hard drives to match or replace existing hard drives, we can quickly find the exact items ordered.

- When we want to refresh our memories about the server we sold three years ago so we know what we're replacing, we can go to the month of the sale and find all the related product descriptions.

- When there's a debate or discussion about when a warranty was purchased, or the type of warranty purchased, we can go right to the invoice.

Generally speaking, it works like this: Mike asks me what kind of drives are in a server we sold three or four years ago. I start by looking in QuickBooks. Since I know the client, there aren't many large hardware purchases to go through. I find the month of purchase and the invoice numbers for the distributor.

At this point, I simply open the binder for that distributor and flip to the month. I find the invoices within a minute or so. There I see the drive form factor, size, and speed. In fact, I have serial numbers in case that information is useful.

This process takes about five minutes in QuickBooks and about two minutes with the paper binders.

We probably use this information about once or twice a month. So it's not worth putting a huge effort into. If we didn't do this, we'd have a scavenger hunt once or twice a month.

This process is best left to whoever handles most of the product ordering for your company. But you need to make sure that technicians and whoever opens shipments pass the packing slips to this person for filing.

Obviously, you will need to fine-tune this SOP for your organization. Just make sure you keep it as streamlined as possible. Don't make it complicated or labor-intensive.

Comments welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

- - - - -

Next topic: Paid Time Off / Paid Holidays


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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

What Can Pope Francis Teach Us About Satya Nadella?

As a geek and a nerd, I have enjoyed a very long relationship with Microsoft. Well, okay, I haven't always enjoyed it. But I've always had a relationship with Microsoft. I started my consulting business in 1995, just in time to help people move away from Windows 3.11 and onto Windows 95. Both Microsoft and I have matured quite a bit since then.

The discussion boards and blogs are filled with speculations about Satya Nadella and what he brings to Microsoft. As only the third CEO ever for that company, it's impossible to say what a normal transition would look like. A great deal of the speculation appears to be people parroting what they read on someone else's blog. That's pretty common when there's a dearth of information.

The most common assumption is that the appointment of someone from the Cloud and Enterprise Group means that those elements will get special attention or more of a push. I don't believe that is as obvious as people make it sound.

You may recall the speculation when Pope Francis was chosen. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a reputation that was very much in line with the conservative movement in the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI. In addition, Pope Benedict had selected many of the cardinals who were to choose his successor.

But as soon as Bergoglio became Pope Francis, he turned out to be someone quite different than was expected. Why? Well, much of his reputation came from holding specific jobs within the Church. In each of these positions, he did what he was asked to do. At no point did anyone ask, "If you could do whatever YOU wanted to do, what would it be?"

Pope Francis has turned out to be quite different than the pundits expected. But I don't think the College of Cardinals was quite so surprised. After all:

1) They knew the guy. They worked with him for decades as he held different positions. They had lunch with him, traveled with him, saw him perform his job. They almost picked him for Pope the last time. While you might think the decision was made on two week's notice, the decision-making process has been going on for years.

2) One doesn't rise to this position without experiences across the broad organization. He was more than the head of his region. He was also a part of the larger church, the global organization. He had an organization-wide view about what was working, what wasn't working, the direction things are headed, and the opportunities ahead. He also had a knowledge of opportunities lost that we outsiders will never know.

In many ways, Nadella is the same. I'd never heard of him before last week. But I don't eat in the executive lunch room as Microsoft. Nadella is known to the insiders. The process of narrowing down candidates to replace Steve Ballmer started years ago. There is a grooming process that takes place.

Moving from region to region, job to job, work group to work group. At each opportunity, the potential candidates were evaluated by their peers as well as those above them and those below them. Nadella was a candidate, not the candidate.

Microsoft as an organization has a very strong sense of citizenship. I don't think they call it that, but it's almost like a family. If you're "in" the family, there's a sense of loyalty and commitment that all the family members understand. Very few companies can succeed at this kind of community building on a global scale with 100,000 employees.

And so Nadella is a company man. He has to look at the whole company, not just the last job he had. He's been with Microsoft for 22 years. He was President of Server and Tools for three years. Now he has to look at the whole company.

Nadella was not chosen because of his work on cloud services, Office 365, and enterprise. He was chosen because he has the right combination of intelligence, commitment, temperament, and teamwork that the Microsoft board of directors was looking for.

These personal traits will shape Nadella's leadership more than the fact that he worked with the cloud services group. Some of the people inside Microsoft might be surprised at some of his actions over the next few months and years. Certainly many of us on the outside will see some moves we didn't expect.

I wish Mr. Nadella the best of luck. My relationship with Microsoft has been strained by several changes they've made over the last few years. I hope Mr. Nadella welcomes me back into the fold and gives me a reason to become a raving fan once again.