Secret Sauce

Our least-kept secret is our processes, and it’s the only reason that we’re successful now and that we will be even more successful in the future. See, we do this thing called “checklists” that makes it really easy to get things done–you choose your task, and follow the checklist. There’s a checklist for payroll, there’s a checklist for uploading billings to persnickety customers, and there’s a checklist to get a lead to a customer. We run our weekly meetings using a checklist, we solve our issues using a checklist, and we use Basecamp to hold these checklists. We love our checklists. In fact, a good chunk of my inspiration for our little system came from The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

The checklist is our “What” and “When“–it specifies what to do and the order in which to do it.

For many of our processes, we complement the checklist with a handy-dandy Powerpoint document collectively called Silverdocs. They go into quite a bit of detail on exactly how to get a task done, including screenshots of computer programs. Note that we don’t have a Silverdoc for every checklist, but we do for the ones that are highly critical or likely to change hands often. Payroll, for example, is well-documented.

Silverdocs are our “How.”

We use Basecamp to run our checklists–each customer, each external job, and each internal project gets it’s own Basecamp Project, usually pre-loaded with checklists. See, our company is spread far and wide–I’m in Kiruna, Sweden, and there’s employees in Minnesota, Washington, and Alaska. It’s important that we have a tool to communicate between us on tasks, and Basecamp works perfectly. We can also create checklists fairly painlessly using email, and we hope to use their API to automate this even more.

Also, we have an Accountability Chart that clearly defines the roles of each person. This makes it pretty obvious who “owns” each checklist–for example whoever is in the Tax and Insurance role “owns” the quarterly tax checklist for each company. Basecamp makes it easy to assign To-dos based on this.

Together, the Accountability Chart and Basecamp show the “Who.”

But, as with most successful systems, there’s a meta-system that is worth talking about. No process, no checklist is perfect. And even if it were, it wouldn’t be for long–the world is a’changing, and we gotta be a’changing with it. We have a specific time every week for discussing these checklists–a one hour meeting–and during the week there is chatter about the best use of the lists. The checklist and accompanying Silverdoc will always change.

And lest you think we’re all robots–it ain’t true. We like our checklists not because they force us to do things the same way, but because they free up our time. We can do things quickly while knowing that we did it right. And when we’re done working on the stuff that has to get done, then we can work on stuff that’s fun, like dreaming up the next feature of Silvertime, or helping a customer plan a new branch in a new state. And that, dear reader, is the the “Why.”

PS – For the astute visitor of michaelonsystems who feels they are missing something, we submit that the “Where” is irrelevant in 95% of our work. Numbers are easily transmitted via fiber-optic cable, and little packets of information often are springing hither and yon.

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