Thursday, October 01, 2020

Documentation and the E-Myth

Perhaps the luckiest thing that happened to me in 1995 is that I read The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber for the first time. (I have re-read it many times since then.)

A friend heard that I was going to quit my job and go into business for myself as a contractor. He recommended the book. It was very consistent with how I had managed departments and corporate offices in my job, so it made perfect sense to me. But it also starts out with a story about a one-person company and tells the tale of how you set up that company for a successful future.

Gerber looks at why companies fail and, more importantly, why some companies do not fail. Most (like 80%) small businesses do not last five years. And of those who survive, most don’t make it another five years. So, if you’ve been in business for five or ten or fifteen years, you must be doing something right.

Overwhelmingly, one key to success is documenting your processes.

Perhaps the most important element in my success, with every business I have built or managed, is my insistence on documentation. My writing career has been dominated by helping people document their processes. Some related books include:

  • The Network Documentation Workbook
  • Managed Services in a Month 
  • Cloud Services in a Month
  • The Network Migration Workbook (with Manuel Palachuk)
  • The Managed Services Operations Manual—four volume set
  • Project Management in Small Business (with Dana Goulston)

All of these are filled with forms, processes, and procedures.

One time, I was flying home and sitting next to a friend of mine. I was writing a chapter for The Managed Services Operations Manual on how to use Velcro.

She looked at me as if I was from Mars. “Your readers don’t know how to use Velcro?”

Well, I suppose everyone can figure it out. But to me, there’s a right way and a wrong way. 

Little things like this truly separate the pros from the newbies. Every profession has “little things” that you learn over time from trial and error—or working with a pro. Clients may never notice the little things. But they will benefit from the little things. And sometimes, as with Velcro, they will notice if you do it wrong.

Velcro has two components—one is scratchy and one is soft. The single most important rule of using Velcro to mount equipment is that you ALWAYS put the soft side on the bottom of the equipment. I go into more detail in the SOP, but the primary reason is that if the equipment is ever placed on a wooden desk or other “nice” surface, it won’t scratch it up.

Also, from time to time, you will need to stack some equipment. When you do that, you will always need to have one side of the Velcro on the top and another side on the bottom. Whichever side is on top must always be on top. And whichever side is on the bottom must always be on the bottom. That way, anything can be stacked on anything and you don’t have to think about it.

Similarly, if you are mounting equipment on a shelf of a wall, the same side must always be on the shelf of the wall. And thus every piece of equipment can easily be moved to any shelf or any wall—because it’s consistent.

The only reason I point this out here is to make the point: Everything needs to be documented—no matter how small it is! If you have Your Company Way of doing something, that needs to be documented.

And it gets better!

You can never document one hundred percent of everything, but you can get close. The world changes too much to ever maintain one hundred percent, even if you could reach it. If you can document eighty or ninety percent, then the rest can often take care of itself.

If your employees understand and follow your SOPs, they will understand a bigger picture that represents your company. So, when they are faced with a new, undocumented task, they will probably do what you would have done. They know how you operate, how you approach service delivery, how to talk to clients about it, etc.

So when they have to make something up on the fly, the chances are very good that they will make the right decisions. 

Processes Are Branding.

Branding Is Everything You Do.

I have done a lot of work with franchises. There are good franchises and bad franchises. The best franchises have the most detailed handbooks.

One of my favorite examples is Subway sandwich shops. How did Subway get to be the largest food franchise in the world—run by a bunch of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds? Standard Operating Procedures.

Let me finish this post with another great book by Michael Gerber: E-Myth Mastery. In this book, Gerber spells out the mindset that will help you build a truly great organization. The key element is simple but profound: Build a business that is bigger than you are.

What does that mean? It means that your business won’t die just because you do. It means your business will hum right along when you go on vacation for two weeks, or two months. It means that your processes and procedures are so well-defined that any single person in your company can be replaced and the organization will still be successful.

And brings us right back to where we started: Documentation.

A great organization documents what they will do and what they have done. They document how things are done, and why things are done that way.

Think about the evolution of a business. Here are some stages to consider.

1) Nothing is documented. Therefore, things are not very standardized. Clients and employees do not expect consistency. The owner makes all the decisions.

2) Some things are documented. Some things are standardized. Clients and employees expect some consistency. The owner makes almost all the decisions.

3) Most things are documented. Most things are standardized. Clients and employees expect consistency. The owner makes sure the process is followed.

4) Everything is documented. Everything is standardized. Clients and employees rely on consistency. The owner checks in with the managers who make sure the processes are followed.

I hope you see why I insist that “branding” is everything you do. It’s not just that you greet people in a friendly way, but that both customers and employees understand that there’s a certain way you do business.

The Way cannot be locked inside your head. The Way permeates every aspect of your business. It can be known. It can be shared. It creates your culture. It is your brand.


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The Absolutely Unbreakable Rules of Service Delivery
Absolutely Unbreakable Rules

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