More work, less paperwork: how to stay lean and avoid red tape

It’s all too easy to think paperwork and policy will solve your business problems. Learn how to stay lean and have a better, bureaucracy-free business.

Stay lean: man with red tape

In a recent post, Matthew (Turbine‘s CEO) gave us an insight into the entrepreneur’s mindset. He talked about several contradictions that exist within small businesses and how he attempts to reconcile them.

Passion vs anxiety; order vs chaos – these all talk to the need to have a minimum viable policy framework for running a business without so much bureaucracy that it gets in the way of innovation and progression.

This post looks at some top tips, inspired by those contradictions, on how to stay lean and get more done in your growing business.

Don’t believe everything you hear

First thing’s first: the paperwork and process that people say you need to run a business is often exaggerated.

As Matthew says, ‘People are 70 percent water but we appear solid. Similarly, businesses are 70 percent chaos but, from the outside, they look like a solid collection of rules, processes and systems.’

Adding more steps, forms and meetings can often feel like a tempting answer to business problems and anxieties over control and management, whereas in reality they just slow things down and create even bigger concerns.

‘A better answer than adding extra steps and meetings to a workday is to focus on action. Create a culture of action and hire people who get things done,’ suggests Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

The counter-intuitive part

Having said all that, there are times when an upfront investment in paperwork pays off in the long run. Executing projects becomes a leaner, more profitable process when everyone knows what they need to do and how. And the most valuable successes in businesses are repeatable ones.

By spending some time thinking about how you complete a task and laying down guidelines and templates on your intranet or in your project management tool, you can lay the foundations for not only more work in the future, but better work too.

Of course, the investment in time and paperwork doesn’t all have to come out of your own pocket. Often it’s better to get employees involved in developing and refining processes, as we’ve argued before.

Just be sure to only codify the things that work, and continually test and eliminate the steps that don’t.

Automatic record-keeping

While scalability and access to enterprise-grade applications are both massive benefits of the cloud for small businesses, another, much under-sung benefit is automatic record-keeping.

Completing processes in applications that are run on the cloud mean every step of a process is automatically logged and connected to the next.

  • Purchases and expenses. Using an app like Turbine means you can enforce policy, approval and consistency without piles of paperwork. It’s all self service so employees enter their request, you approve or comment, all from your browser and all the details and dates and there ready for your accountant when they need it.
  • Invoicing. Who owes you what, how overdue are they and did they open the invoice when you sent it? With loads of apps to choose from, including some free ones, invoicing no longer has to be a chore, but rather a simple tick-box check-in.
  • Project management. We’ve said it (I’ve lost count) times and we’ll say it again. We love Basecamp. It makes collaboration, collation and communication faster and simpler. Everything we need to do with a project – documents, deadlines and assignments – are all in one place, which everyone can access any time anywhere. Project management no longer means gathering emails and paperwork: instead it’s a quick scan of updates and then down to actual business.

Hire as you mean to go on

A lean business is, above all, built on trust and great employees. If you have people that take the initiative and get done what needs to be done, you shouldn’t have to have a manual for every little thing.

If you hire employees that you can trust, HR policies can be kept lean since acting sensibly and in the business’s best interest will be second nature to them. In fact, the few rules and policies you do have will be less about paperwork and more about implementation. Cultivate the right culture and it keeps bureaucracy down.

The positions you hire for also matter. Before you post a job ad or start searching on LinkedIn, ask yourself if the role is really necessary. How does it contribute to the end product or service of your business? How does it solve customers’ problems? How does it help get things done?

If you can’t answer those questions, you’re likely looking for a bureaucrat or pencil-pushing middle management and all they’ll end up doing is bloating your business. Be sure every role your create has ownership of a complete business process and can remain action-orientated.

Start, stop, continue to stay lean

Remaining lean is all about making sure any processes and paperwork you have remain relevant. It’s important to be on the look out for redundant clauses or steps and eliminate them as soon as possible.

This refactoring can involve just you, all your staff or, as Russell Bishop says in the New York Times, ‘if you’re really feeling courageous, try asking your customers or suppliers what hurdles you’ve put in their path.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *