How to create operational best practice

Standards International's Michelle Hoskin discusses the ability to consistently deliver a high level of service

I believe that ‘best practice’ can only be achieved by creating a structured and supported environment in which every individual can utilise their unique abilities to create an amazing experience for their clients.

So, how can you do this? Having a documented process for each key task that the business undertakes allows you to deliver your service level promises to your clients every day, without fail.
 
Businesses that adopt a process-oriented way of working often keep all of their key company documents and procedures within an ‘operations manual’.

An operations manual – an overview

An operations manual is the ‘business bible’, the ‘guide for reference’, the ‘essential toolkit’ of all the business is and all that it needs in order to operate at maximum effectiveness and efficiency at all times.

When creating operations manuals, sadly many firms approach the exercise the wrong way. The first things that you must appreciate are the following:

1. It’s a labour of love
2. The process will never be finished, as it requires continual improvement
3. Its creation and use must become part of your ‘business as usual’

Once you are happy with these three things, then you are 70 per cent of the way there!

So, let’s take a look inside. An operations manual should be broken down into three key areas.

Level 1 – Manual

This gives an overview of what the business is, why it exists and what it does, plus details of its key
people, policies, plans and objectives.

Level 2 – Procedures

These provide the working instructions for each of your key business, operational and client
functions.

Level 3 – Master documents

Like procedures, these help to make sure that the business can deliver on its promises and operate
at maximum effectiveness and efficiency at all times.

Each of the above should be given a title and be quality controlled, which allows you to easily identify it. You should also identify the name of the role that is responsible for delivering the process, as well as an internal auditor who is responsible for reviewing and recommending changes to improve the effectiveness of the individual task.

Before we explain how to create your operations manual (see ‘Writing up your key processes’, below), we’d like to go through some of the benefits.

Why create an operations manual?

Creating your very own operations manual does not happen overnight, but for those businesses that have taken the leap, the rewards come in abundance.

First and foremost, it allows you to grow and build a sustainable business.

When you first set up a business, you take on every role going: you are the owner, the salesperson, the researcher and the administrator. You are responsible for everything: you win the new business, you answer the phone, you write your own letters, you do your own research and you produce your own client reports. But as time goes on, it becomes physically impossible to do all these things by yourself, so you look to recruit an extra pair of hands.

You begin by handing over the main administrative duties. Then, as your trusted companion becomes more competent and understands more about your business, you start to hand over more of what you do so that you can focus on seeing your clients and working on the business. You find yourself at a point where you actually have no idea what your colleague does, or even how they do it – and goodness knows how you would actually cope if they were to leave.

What would happen if they did hand in their notice? What would you do?

Financial advisers up and down the country will at some point in the future end up in this very position – which will have a detrimental effect on their business.

The root cause of the problem is the lack of documented processes and management ownership of the delivery of the key business tasks. The real challenge comes with the recruitment, induction and training of a new member of staff. It is sure to cause disruption, as the job of retraining a new administrator into your way of working and thinking is a tiresome task.

It is, however, so much easier if, as the business grows, you take the extra time to create a series of detailed instructions and step-by-step processes for everything that you do – and how you do it. Then, when the time comes to take on your new administrator, all you have to do is go through the manual with them just to make sure that they understand it.

We often hear advisers complain about how difficult it is to find good administrators with the right financial services knowledge. However, for those with a full set of documented procedures, the skill sets they seek are completely different, because everything that they do and the manner in which they want it done have been fully documented. This ensures that the service level standards that they have set for their business and their team are delivered time and time again and to the level that their clients have come to expect.

This example has been applied to the recruitment of a single administrator, but the same principle can and must be applied to all other members of staff, including paraplanners – and even advisers. Incorporating every key role within the business reduces the reliance on you and puts a stop to the ‘What do we do next...?’ syndrome. Your processes will be efficient, effective and simple to use, and you will need very little involvement from those whose skills are best used elsewhere in the business.

Every business – whether it is well organised or not – will have some sort of systems, procedures and processes in place, but the better businesses will have made the effort to write them down and create an operations manual.

If you are not yet there, then you are putting yourself in an extremely vulnerable position: one which leaves you completely reliant on your administrators and paraplanners’ skills and abilities to do a good job rather than their ability to follow a structure and operate a system.

Removing complexity from the workplace

Running a business should not be as complicated as people make it. We have worked with many businesses over the years, and one of the main issues that we see in the workplace is companies trying to work around and adapt the culture to suit the complexities of individual personalities of the people within their teams.

A team that is well selected, well trained and well managed can truly transform the performance of a business. However, a team with a lack of leadership, with no direction and no way of being measured and monitored, will suffer from low morale and even lower productivity.

There are many different methods of selecting and building a unique team, and we have been lucky enough to work with some of the greatest teams across the profession. We see that they all have one thing in common: a central vision that unites and motivates them, and a centralised toolkit of standard guidelines, procedures, templates and forms – all of which support them to achieve both the company’s objectives and their own individual objectives.

Further problems are caused in the workplace when management have great ideas of implementing a new initiative, such as a new back office system, a range of new services or even a new marketing campaign, but fail to plan and document the processes that will ensure the initiative’s success.

Writing up your key processes

Anyone who has made the effort to document company processes deserves a pat on the back. However, we do see a few of the same mistakes being made time and time again, so we hope that by following our step-by-step guidelines, you too will be successful in creating your very own operations manual.

1. Before creating key procedures and master documents, ask yourself the following questions:

• What is the desired outcome of the activity?
• How is it best documented – i.e. process, checklist, flowchart or form?
• Who is currently responsible for delivering the procedure?
• What is the most effective and efficient way for this to be delivered?
• What other tools support this activity – e.g. software systems?

2. The nature and the level of detail of the documented procedures should be sufficient to support the adherence of contractual, statutory and regulatory requirements and the needs and expectation of your clients, as well any other interested third parties. The objective of a process is to act as a reference of best practice for each member of the team and as the means by which management can audit and review current practices in order to initiate any necessary change.

3. It is good practice for all procedures and master documents to have a unique reference or issue number and be signed off by a person with the authority to approve the adequacy of the process, before it is released and communicated to the rest of the team.
 
4. Once created, each process should be:

• clear and concise
• simple and understandable
• tested and amended
• quality controlled and communicated to each member of the team.

5. A high level of quality should be at the core of every process. Quality can be defined as the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfils requirements.
 
6. Remember that no business activity should be viewed in isolation. Rather, business activities should be looked at holistically, as a set of documented and controlled interrelated and interactive processes. It is likely that the output of one activity will be the input of another, so make sure that there is a ‘free flow’ of information from process to process.

7. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to create a library of template letters, emails, forms and checklists, as these all support the effectiveness of your documented procedures.

Creating a process improvement culture
 
Once you have documented your key business processes, it is important that you make every effort to review them on a regular basis. We recommend adding this item to the agenda of your monthly internal meetings. That way, every member of the team has the opportunity to put forward in an open format any suggested improvements.
 
When verifying and evaluating the effectiveness of your processes, ask the following questions:
 
1. Have all of the key processes been identified and documented?
2. Are the processes effective in providing the required results, or are there areas for
improvement?
3. Have the processes been adequately documented and are they available to all the team in both
hard copy and electronic format?
4. Have the procedures been effectively implemented across the business, and are they fully
understood by each member of the team?
5. Have the procedures been logged and quality controlled, and has the management of them
been assigned to an appropriate person within the business?


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