Checklists delegate a process, not a task

One of the things that tends to plague solo business owners and managers in smaller companies is delegating complex tasks as the company grows. In “E-Myth” fashion, the owner and technician (whatever that means in your line of work) is faced with the choice of delegation or overwhelm as their company grows. Sometimes there are skills issues that slow this delegation, but I often find that the complexity of a simple (to the owner) task contributes to the challenge. Consider a task that is taken for granted by someone who has done it for years. Being able to take it for granted depends on experience and the benefit of having the mental version of muscle memory to perform these tasks. The delegating party doesn’t have to think hard to remember the steps, even if the steps are challenging, technical or difficult. Where things get interesting is when you delegate a technical task such as diagnosing a SQL problem.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what SQL is – it doesn’t matter. Replace my references to SQL with a relevant and challenging delegation subject. The subject can be any detailed topical area (technical or not) in your business, whether it’s international legal contracts, electronic ignitions or chainsaw chain sharpening. The WHAT doesn’t matter. The process is what we’re getting at.

Checklists build confidence

When I had to turn over some detailed SQL troubleshooting to folks who weren’t super experienced at SQL diagnosis, the area that tended to stop them wasn’t the individual tasks performed during diagnosis. The problem was determining (or knowing) which step to perform first… and why. This created a mental roadblock at first, even though these folks could perform each of the steps that I would perform while diagnosing a SQL problem. Their biggest challenge was not performing the troubleshooting tasks, it was knowing which tasks to do and in what order to perform them.

I solved this challenge (and some similar ones) with simple checklists. The solution is an obvious one to solve the roadblock that held up productive delegation of this work. Once I provided a checklist with some description of why I perform the steps at the time I perform them, things changed. Suddenly, I wasn’t getting questions about which step to try first, or “What should I try next?”. The checklists were taking the one remaining confusing thing off the table: What to do, when to do it and why to do it at that moment.

When you talk to someone who is experienced in diagnosing problems or performing similar tasks like this – they have an experience-based, innate sense of what to try first, next and next. While some of it is Occam’s razor, a good bit of what to do when comes from having been there before. The checklists helped fill a good bit of that experience gap simply by giving folks a sequence to follow even though it was simply sequencing tasks they already knew how to perform. Eventually, their own experience fills in the gaps and they start adding their own checklist steps and notes for why that step is next.

One of the things I noticed when providing a checklist is that the skills improved quickly once they had the list to follow. Rather than facing the blank page of “what do I do first” and the mental overhead that creates, these folks were using the checklist to help them learn the progression of steps. This eliminates the overhead and provides the mental headroom to improve their SQL skills while the checklist provides a framework or a process to work from.

Checklists – Not solely for the owner

The benefits of delegation checklists aren’t limited to owner / manager delegation. The often-missing (or incomplete) but sorely needed process documentation across the entire business is tough to get rolling. Rather than looking at it like the great American novel, start with what helps right now. Who has the next vacation? Who was recently out sick? Start with their tasks. Once you get rolling, it’ll be easier to step into the job and identity the types of tasks that demand a checklist. The priority of need for these checklists will start to become more apparent with each vacation, sick day and checklist creation.

Empowerment and the Silent Cell Phone

Henry Ford, despite his success with the assembly line at Ford Motor Company, made a mistake that many business owners still make today.

He didn’t delegate.

Most business owners delegate at least a little. Not Ford.

According to Peter Drucker, the senior Ford didn’t believe in delegation or floor management and it cost him plenty. Fortunately, he had the millions, if not billions, to backup what is now commonly considered a sizable error in judgment. We do, of course, have the benefit of a century of hindsight.

Ford’s son, Henry II, felt differently about the delegation of management. He believed that having management on the factory floor was critical. That decision was one of the keys to turning their family business around from a financially perspective.

Delegation is Efficient, Strategic

Ford II understood that leadership had a place in the assembly line factory floor back then as much as it does now in any business that has employees.

He discovered that empowering factory floor managers with the power to make decisions within the authority granted to them resulted in a savings of time and money. I suspect it also resulted in a safer factory floor in an era that isn’t known for having safe manufacturing workplaces. It’s also likely that the decisions made were better than (or the same) as those Mr. Ford might have made, since they were made based on those managers’ day to day experience on the factory floor.

That has several benefits we’ll talk about shortly, but it isn’t the number one reason to delegate. Your time is the biggest reason.

If you are focused on making the small decisions, every minute you spend on them is taken from the time available to research and make big decisions.

If the big decisions that affect your business long-term aren’t getting the proper amount of analysis, what problems could you miss? More importantly, what opportunities could you miss the importance of, if not miss completely?

Return on You

I can’t sit here and tell you exactly what to delegate and what to do yourself. What I can suggest is that you consider if something can be delegated to another person when you put that task on your todo list or schedule. You could do this daily, as you add things to the list, as you finish the task or whatever works for you. The key is that you actually do it.

Maybe you have to do it yourself this time, but make another todo to prepare as necessary to delegate that task next time. That way, when it comes up, you’re prepared to delegate without delay.

I’ve already made note of the value of being able to focus on the important stuff. Yes, this is the Department of Obvious Obviousness stuff, but I see enough of it that it’s worth repeating.

An additional benefit is that you might be the highest paid person at your business. If so, do you want to be doing things, management or otherwise, that someone who makes less than you *could* do? Being willing to mop the floor is essential. Doing it yourself, when you could outsource it or delegate it, allows you to focus on and work on valuable work that grows your business.

You wouldn’t hire someone to mop the floor and pay them $75 an hour. Yet that’s exactly what doing it yourself might be, effectively.

Fertilize Your Garden

One of the other benefits of empowering people on the floor (in the cubicle, on the road, whatever) is that you make that person more valuable.

Just like compost or fertilizer strengthens the plants in a garden, empowering your staff has a similar impact.

It engages them more closely in your business, makes them worth more in the marketplace (and thus to your business) and allows them to gain more skill in making decisions. The better they get, the less time you spend on those decisions, giving you more time to focus on the big picture.

Failure to “fertilize your garden” leads to the next topic…

Vacationus Interruptus

Once in a great while, you probably like to take a day off.

You’d love to leave for a week and come back to a business without 100 emails about decisions that “couldn’t be made while you were gone”.

You’d probably love to take a vacation and not have your cell ring every hour with a question about a decision that, now that you’re on vacation, seems like an annoying interruption.

Empower. Delegate. And enjoy that vacation.