There’s nothing like real life to remind you of the importance of process

December 1, 2008

A month ago, my partner and I moved into a brand new home. We decided to rent out the top floor as a separate apartment to help pay off our mortgage. After carefully assessing the extent of the renovations, we opted to fix up the house ourselves. (If you feel like this is foreshadowing, you’re right!)

The first challenge was finding a tenant. It was surprisingly easy. An advance preview in the classifieds gave us a deluge of responses. One reliable tenant: check. The second challenge was configuring a tiny space into a kitchen. Thanks to Craig’s List and IKEA, we retrofitted a small nook. One cozy kitchen: check. And finally, the third challenge was putting together a spiral staircase to create the separate entrance. (You might be wondering, “why a spiral staircase?” The space was less than ideal for a regular set of stairs and we didn’t want a shared front entrance, so this was the best alternative.) One separate entrance: check.

Let construction begin!

Now for the record, let’s just get one thing straight: Never, has there ever, been the slightest hint of construction capability on my CV. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not afraid of hard work. But my skills go about as far as nail file on a construction site: I’m painfully useless. Thankfully, my partner knows what he’s doing. He got the specs, drew the plans and sourced out all the materials. And so the work began.

It was smooth sailing until we got to the stairs. If you thought IKEA’s instructions can be brutal, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The instructions suggest you start building from the top, down. While this is technically the best way to go about building them, whoever wrote the instructions, has obviously never had to assemble a staircase by lying on their belly. Newsflash: it doesn’t work. Part of what made it awkward was the space we had to work in. The other part was figuring out all the details that weren’t in the instructions.

But I digress – after digging below the frost line and setting a concrete footing, then came time to install the 16 ft. pole that would hold the entire staircase together. Sandwiched between two houses standing about three feet apart, somehow my partner managed to get this done on his own.

That was the easy part. Then came sliding the stairs onto the pole one by one. We stood there in the howling wind, pelted by icy rain, and stared at this enigma. How on earth would we get steel stairs onto an unsecured pole, while balancing it so that we wouldn’t cut any power lines, or getting our hands severed at the bottom?

Applying a simple and safe process to get things done

After an hour of scratching our heads, it finally came to me: what if I used a plank of wood to slowly ease them down, while my partner balanced himself on a ladder holding the pole in place? It was a dangerous strategy, but it was also worth a try.

Slowly, we got the first one down. Then the second, third and fourth. By the time we got to the sixth and seventh – we had nailed our process down to perfection. In fact, it was sort of like a choreographed dance. We had to get every single step right, or else we had to start the whole process all over again. More importantly – it was crucial that we ‘go slow to go fast’ because one of us could end up seriously injured. When you’re talking about steel and 16ft drops, you’d better be doing it right.

This got me thinking: we could have followed the instructions included with the stair kit, but their process – as it was provided – is incapable of delivering the end product. We had to find several work-arounds just to get things done. We also had to find a way to do so safely. So we took a risk and thankfully, our process worked.

Don’t force your customers to compensate for a bad process

But what if it hadn’t been able to come up with our own process? Our work might have been at a standstill and we could have missed our deadline. Or we would have been stuck for hours on the line with customer service; More importantly, we might have lost thousands of dollars on a product we couldn’t use.

Too often companies think they have the right process, when in fact, they do not. Customers are then forced to come up with ways to compensate – which is frustrating, to say the least. The right process, however, can make a product or service seamless – and that’s how you get customers to come back.

This is not so different from applying process to the health-care industry, manufacturing, financial services or even human resources. In each case following a process to get it right the first time will save you time, money and in some cases, even your life.  And if nothing else, it certainly makes home renovation projects that much safer!

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