Do you know how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Yes, that's a serious question
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (yes, that MIT), there's a class called Innovation Zero Robotics that uses an in-class exercise called "Making a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich". You can see the instructor's actual handout, too.
Most of us think, "PB&J? That's like the most basic sandwich there is. A 3-year-old could do it." It might seem that way, but what the exercise aims to teach is the result of literalism that come with interacting in any kind of programming language. The student's goal is to effectively "program" their teacher, who will follow each instruction in its most literal sense, demonstrating the clarity with which instructions must be given. For example, let's say the instructions are as follows:
- Grab some bread
- Spread jelly on one slice
- Spread peanut butter on the other
- Put them together
The teacher will enthusiastically grab a loaf of bread, attempt to roll a jar of jelly across one side of the loaf, roll a jar of peanut butter across the other side of the loaf, and then mash the jars together.
It's completely ridiculous, right?
Despite the frustratingly comical nature of the peanut butter and jelly exercise, it's an incredible demonstration of how instructions must be precisely clear in their most literal form to be successfully interpreted by computers. Computers have no nuance or context when it comes to the things that engineers program them to do; they're not able to pick up on the things we may think are obvious.
Everything needs to be defined.
Defining Your Processes Makes Everything Easier
We often think of tasks and processes as intuitive, like making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When you started your first business as an entrepreneur, you created a process for getting work done without even realizing it. In order to work with your first client or make your first sale, you followed a process; you got from point A to point B somehow. It may have been incredibly inefficient, it probably changed over time, and you never wrote down how you did it, but it was still a process - a way of doing something.
As I mentioned before, computers have no nuance or context when executing programming. Thank God we work with real human beings! Regardless, for humans to be successful at their jobs, we still need clear instructions.
Most entrepreneurs run into this issue first when hiring a new employee. They start to go through the motions of training and educating the new hire on how to actually do their job! It's this first attempt at expansion that can often show holes in how your business operates. Do you know that duct-tape solution you created for a problem you thought you'd address later? It'll start rearing its head again when your new employee begins to bump up against it. Unfortunately, duct-tape solutions don't make for the best processes when something critical needs to get done.
While your first hire may bring feelings of vulnerability to you as the business owner, there's nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, a period of transition is an excellent starting place for documenting the way things should get done!
Every job that needs to get done in your business can be broken out into tasks. What are the steps for running payroll? How do you pay the credit card bill? What materials do you include when shipping out products? Identifying the tasks that make up each job and then actually listing them out in a checklist format allows you to document how work should be getting done on a day-to-day basis. Once you've broken out all of the work that needs to get done, you can write out the process for accomplishing each task. These things don't need to be long, but a few sentences describing what needs to get done or why can be extremely helpful to someone new!
Assigning Tasks Keeps Work Flowing
Documenting what you're doing and how you're doing it is a huge step. It's an incredibly important part of building your business because you're ensuring that you are no longer the bottleneck as the business owner! You're now able to assign tasks and responsibilities to other team members as you grow.
Assigning tasks is a crucial step to improving your efficiency as a whole. In startups and small businesses, job responsibilities often get blended. Who handles sales calls? Who's doing customer support? Why is the CEO handling accounting!?
Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of each teammate ensures that everything gets done. Sure, if someone's out sick, other people may be able to pick up where they left off because of your incredibly defined processes, but that doesn't mean that everybody is doing anybody's job all the time. If there's a task that needs to get done in your business, it must be assigned to someone (or some department) in particular in order to reduce confusion. When everybody is clear about what they're doing in their job, what their responsibilities are, and why they're doing what they're assigned to, the business can run much more efficiently.
As your small business grows and hires additional teammates, you as the business owner should be removing yourself from the operational aspects as much as possible. As the owner, your responsibility is to work on improving and growing the business rather than operating it so that it can continue to grow and support the people that you're serving and employing.
In order for the business to run at its best, you need to remove the biggest bottleneck: yourself.
Don't Fear Change, Be Adaptable
Technology changes at an extremely rapid pace. I wouldn't be surprised if we already have robots in the world that can make us incredible PB&Js from very few instructions. Since technology is changing so rapidly, the industry that you're in can also change at an astounding rate, which means that the way you do things can quickly become outdated.
Defining the tasks and processes that makeup how your small business operates is incredibly important, but being open and flexible to adapting or changing how things are done can help you stay on top of the market. Processes don't need to be rigid in order to be successful; they can ebb and flow as things change.
There's a balance here that needs to be struck: your process can't be constantly changing, otherwise, it'd be too hard for another person to pick up. On the other hand, if you don't change the way you do things every once in a while, you risk being stuck in the past.
So, how do you know when something needs to change?
This is where the efficiency of your process comes into play. You can measure and track how well your current process allows you to get things done, then compare the difference of a new way of doing things. Define the threshold of improvement that you're looking for, whether it's getting work done 15-minutes faster or creating less of a headache for your team. Then, simply ask yourself if the change you're implementing will bring enough savings in terms of your metric: time efficiency, clarity, or duct-tape solution removal. If it meets your standards and is agreed upon by everyone involved, you've got a new process on your hands.
Your business is only as good as your processes because your processes are what allow people to shine. Without a doubt, when your people shine brighter, your business improves.
So, go out and try teaching people to make a PB&J. You might just discover something about the way you and your team work along the way.