The fewest steps possible in a process makes for a more productive overall system.

There’s a temptation to build processes that are complex, that address every possible eventuality, that create a polished, perfect outcome. We believe that if we capture lessons learned that they will persist over time and our business system will become increasingly effective. However, the more complex a process becomes, the less likely it will actually create value.

Many years ago, after reading books like the E-Myth and Work the System, I tried to document every aspect of our business. My goal was to expose the workings so that I could improve them and make them consistent. Since then, our team has iterated several times on our processes. On several of these occasions, we’ve blown the dust off of a long process that was painstakingly created and abandoned shortly thereafter.

In developing our business systems, what I’ve learned is:

1) Initially, people will follow a process, but eventually they will just memorize it. This is one of the reasons that simpler processes work better than more complex ones- they’re easier to memorize, making it more likely that they will be consistently followed.

2) Simple processes provide slack. Processes are inherently models about how the world should be. In reality though, entropy prevails. Simple processes, with only essential steps, enable people to make adjustments to deal with the chaos of actual experience.

3) Simple process support agency and accountability. They provide latitude for personal agency and don’t offload responsibility onto the process (“I was just following our SOP.”) For example, if a process has the step, “3. Notify customer,” a team member might make the decision to call a customer rather than emailing them, because they know that that particular customer doesn’t read emails.

Simple processes are more robust against change and more likely to be followed, but does that mean that you’ll end up with a simpler business system? Not necessarily. Sophisticated systems are often built from simple components, like houses that are composed of the relatively simple framing, electrical, and plumbing components. Simple parts, synergistic outcomes.

“Human life is made up of two elements, power and form, and the proportion must be invariably kept if we would have it sweet and sound.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience.