Task. Process. Tools.

Three steps to guide your use of technology in 2008.

A few readers have asked me questions about the last few newsletters and blogs concerning how to choose technology. After mulling it over and answering e-mails, I decided my seven word slogan "Define Your Process Then Pick Your Tools" can be shortened to three words: Task, Process, Tools. Isn't that how small businesses operate, by doing more with less? Seven down to three certainly sounds like less, and I think it does more.

Let me define what I mean by each term so we're on the same page. "Task" is a better term than job, because a job consists of many tasks. For instance, the job description may be shipping and receiving clerk. That description includes a great many tasks. The job at hand may be to accept a new shipment of widgets needed for an assembly process and future sale. Inside that description lurks many tasks.

Second, "Process" means a well-thought out series of steps needed to reach a specified goal. If you need widgets for assembly, the assembly "process" defines exactly how and where to install those widgets. You can't throw all the parts of the final assembly into a box, shake them up and hope they assemble themselves while tumbling about. The steps showing how to combine the materials into a final product define exactly and in precise order every step of the process.

Finally, "Tools" means the technology used to support the defined process. Many times the technology requires skilled handling by trained employees to make things work out properly. Other times, tools may be a series of steps learned through training and repetition and not a computer.

Let's watch Steve the Shipping Clerk receive a box of widgets and see what tasks are involved. As soon as Steve opens the box, we have a task. Do the contents of the box match the purchase order?

The task list for accepting the widgets can be long. Did you order widgets? Are the right number of widgets in the box? Are they the right color? Are all other physical characteristics correct?

Each task will have its own distinct process, but they'll all be similar. Count the widgets, check the purchase order, mark whether accurate or not. Check the widget color, and the color ordered.

New processes become important as the widgets continue their march through the system. Mark the purchase order as filled completely or partially. Place the widgets into the inventory system. Maybe even alert sales and marketing the long-awaited widgets have arrived so they can work to increase orders. Lots of processes needed to fulfill the tasks.

Finally, the tools can be technology or not, but technology tends to be faster and more accurate. Steve may go to a computer terminal and search for the purchase order based on the purchase order number referenced on the widget packing slip. Or Steve may go to a file cabinet and look through a batch of paper purchase orders to find the right page. Which will be used depends on the process and the technology level of the company.

Steve may have a scanner tied to a document management program that reads certain sections of the packing slip and reconciles the information with the appropriate purchase order or orders. Such software exists, but has to be trained to know where to look on the scanned document. But there are many tools that may be involved in widget acceptance, from a terminal in Steve's area to a full document management program and workflow system.

We're assuming there's a computer system with the purchase order online, but there may not be. Steve may start pawing through that file cabinet looking for the purchase order. Heaven help Steve if the packing list doesn't reference the purchase order, and he has to search manually through all the open purchase orders to find the right one. A good tool for that situation may be a software search screen in the accounting or Enterprise Resource Planning system that allows you to search for items listed on purchase orders.

One seemingly simple job for Steve; many complicated processes that must be defined to help Steve be accurate. Personally, I believe an accounting system providing purchase orders, inventory levels, and reconciliation of received goods against outstanding purchase orders will pay for itself in saving Steve time and his company the potential for missed process steps if Steve does all this manually. Of course, I'm in the computer business, so I tend to think computers are necessary.

Yet the level of technology invested to accept widgets depends on your level of comfort, not mine. If you only get one box of widgets per week, the computer technology may be better applied to some other area (increasing sales might be a good place, since you're obviously not making many products with those widgets). Steve may be fine with a small file cabinet, while Sammy in Sales needs a better way to convert the prospects delivered by Monty in Marketing into paying widget customers. But that's another technology tale for another day.

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