You’re probably familiar with the fabled story of the McDonald’s brothers creating a hamburger joint that was a model of efficiency that ultimately enabled them with Ray Kroc to replicate franchises and consume the world. Twenty years before that in 1921 the founder of White Castle, Walter Anderson, brought the assembly line to the kitchen and capitalized on it creating a chain based on the idea of standard processes . So, we can infer that standard processes are a requirement for successful replication across multiple locations, but that doesn’t necessarily produce high-quality results – at least before last call at the bar.
Maybe you’re already a believer that standard processes are beneficial, but maybe you’re thinking they’re better suited for manufacturing or burger-flippers. What do you think about your pilot not using a set procedure on your next flight? In the case of a fight checklist, efficiency is important, but safety is paramount. Humans are complex machines that are easily distracted and error-prone so using a clear set of instructions reduces errors and builds consistency. There are a lot of names for this concept such as best-known process, baseline process, and standard work or process. The name is important, but the concept is. Not only does standard work improve consistency, strengthen institutional knowledge, and reduce having to solve the same problems over and over again, but it also frees up time for improvements. The key point is to build a consistent process to work from as a foundation. It’s difficult to make improvements and even harder to make them stick so creating a simple system along with the expectation of improvement and maintaining it is critical.
You should start to look at all work as a process. First, pick a couple of processes that have high failure rates or high employee dissatisfaction. Showing success at pain points early is a solid way to build supporters. Since I work with a lot of small companies, I’m going to take what is probably a contrarian position and recommend that in your pursuit of process development and organizational improvement, you should use as few methodologies/tools as possible but do it within a structured system. The reasoning is that the barrier to implementing any new method is high. It’s a habit that needs to be built and reinforced. Making it your own to fit your organization should be a high priority.
So, you’re warming up to the idea of standard operating procedures (SOPs). The key is to start by doing the minimum. Not too many people like to read or write procedures so make it easy by using a simple one-line, bulleted format to start. A 1-pager if possible. The person who knows the process should write it up as-is and save that as the first version – no questions asked. Why? If it was the person’s job to do the work yesterday without a written SOP, they shouldn’t be given the Nth degree because they made it their own. The next step is to have that person train a small team to the level they can be helpful. This is also a good opportunity for cross-training. The group should then suggest and prioritize improvements along with a plan to test them before a formal change is made to version 2. Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)  is your first tool for enabling changes in an orderly manner. Here’s a nice description of PDCA from the Australian quality software company Qudos .
Maybe I should back up and address the need for improvement in general. We see tangible improvements on almost a daily basis all around us like when the package we ordered yesterday arrived today or when we use our phone to command Taco Bell to our house. Just because you’re not making rockets that don’t land back on the launchpad don’t make the mistake of believing advances aren’t occurring in every industry. Change is coming fast and faster, everywhere. It’s easy to confuse the growth of resources and capability with improvement. Although the bottom line might be improving, doing more is not the same as doing what you do better. Productivity or efficiency are better measures of improvement.
Having worked in R&D for most of my career I took it for granted that the goal was improvement for everyone, but when I speak to small business owners about how improvements happen in their organization I can see there’s a problem with creating and maintaining a culture of improvement. Research shows that even when there is a concerted effort to create a culture of improvement the main barrier to adoption is rooted in fear. The simple fear is that people don’t want to feel stupid in front of their peers. Pretty much like a high school classroom. So, the best thing you can do to thrive in the future is to be open to productive change by speaking up with your ideas, good and bad, and encouraging others to do the same. BTW, if you’re working on some new medical device or assembling nuclear weapons, please refer to your organization's 20,000-page procedure for writing procedures.
Darren Verebelyi, PhD
 “How the In-N-Out Burger Was Born” https://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Chain-Reaction/
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