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Proper prior preparation, planning and procedure prevents poor performance

I missed the New Zealand vs South Africa Rugby game in the weekend. To be frank, under most circumstances it wouldn’t have been a bad game to have missed but I had been talking it up so much with the ex-pat South African manager of the lodge I’m staying at in Zambia that turning up right on the full-time whistle was more than a little embarrassing. However the funniest part of the whole debacle and the part that I hope that you, dear reader, might take some value from is how I missed the game in the first place.

I’m en-route to Tech Ed South Africa to present four sessions on Dynamics CRM and the new Microsoft Azure Services platform. As any madly enthusiastic white water kayaker would do when in Africa, I decided to take a side trip to Zambia to kayak on the mighty Zambezi River. I organised a kayak guiding company to look after my logistics on the ground – they shall remain nameless to protect the innocent.

It’s early in the white water season here. The river is still too high to run the top six rapids; and rapid number four is particularly hazardous at the moment. Instead we’ve been running from rapid seven down to rapid 25.

Another consequence of it being early in the season is the whole operation is only just spinning up. Our guide had only arrived last week for his first season on the Zambezi; the Land Rover driver had done a single ‘visit every rapid so you sort of know what is what’ orientation drive; in fact, the only person in the entire setup with any real long term experience was the kayak porter who, for 5000 Kwacha (US$1) per boat, carries our kayaks (two at a time) up and down the steep 200 vertical metre cliffs into the gorge each day. You can probably see where this is going, right?

The first two days were fairly uneventful. We ran from rapid 10 to 25 on the first day and rapid seven to 25 on the second. The third day was rugby day so we decided to have a much shorter trip. Rapid seven to... um.... err.... rapid 13... oh... “Rapid 13 takeout is broken,” says our porter.... So we settle on rapid 14. The guide says meet us there between 2pm and 3pm. I changed the meeting time to 1pm, knowing how long it had taken previously. We arrive at what we think is the rapid 14 takeout at 12:30pm, have lunch and then have a snooze out of the sun.

Naturally the pickup time came and went and at around 1:30pm we decided to continue down the river in case the pickup point was further down. By the next corner we realised the error of our ways and it was around this point that I asked ‘what are the standard operating procedures in this situation?’ In short, there weren’t any. Someone ‘might’ have ‘mentioned’ to the driver that if we were to miss a pickup they should go to rapid 25, so, we headed to rapid 25. Meanwhile, the poor porter was running up and down the gorge at rapid 13, 14 and 15 madly looking for us.

Once we got to rapid 25 we left our boats by the river and hiked out. At the top, in the middle of nowhere, we cracked open the dry bag with the satellite phone – this included a laminated sheet of paper outlining the standard procedures for using the phone. It included the various phone numbers of people around the globe, emergency services and the local number of the other guides here in Zambia.... only it was the numbers of last year’s guides who were no longer here! We decided against calling the global operations manager of the rafting company and instead, while I stayed to mind the gear, the guide hiked off with one of the locals to find a village with cell coverage. For a third world country the preponderance of cellular telephones even in quite remote rural villages is quite astounding, and in our situation, quite fortuitous.

Meanwhile, back at the Land Rover, the driver had climbed a tree to get cellular signal and called the other guide back in Livingstone itself. Eventually, all parties got back on the same page, the pickup was made and we arrived back at the lodge just in time to watch the South African after-match gloating.

There endeth the story and here beggineth the lesson that I think anyone in business can learn from.

Properly documenting the way your business should run is critical to ensuring that you are ready to react when things go off track. In situations where there are staff changes and the use of external contractors a business can lose a huge amount of accumulated knowledge and expertise though such change. What are some guidelines for managing these sorts of procedures in your business?

1. Write them down
2. Ensure they are discoverable
3. Review them periodically

Write your procedures down
Get the rules of operation down on paper. Whether in written or diagrammatic form, you should have documented procedures for business as usual as well as reasonably foreseeable exception cases. If a question comes up regularly on internal discussion lists, codify the answer. If you have an incident such as the one we had on the Zambezi, ensure that you take the time to capture the learnings. At MedRecruit we’ve just put in place a set of very structured sales workflows; and while these are implemented inside Microsoft Dynamics CRM, they are also documented in plain English and diagrammatic format so that the recruitment consultants can easily follow them.

Ensure they are discoverable
Put them all in one easy to find place. They do no good sitting in a filing cabinet or buried on a folder share. At Intergen we’re not perfect at this, but we make use of SharePoint document libraries which have the added benefit of making this information searchable. If you are going to distribute hard copies, be sure to keep a track of where they end up so that they can be easily updated. Document libraries allow people to subscribe to key documents as email or RSS feeds and they also make it easy to implement workflows as discussed below.

Review them periodically
As we saw from the satellite phone list, out of date information is often as useless as no information at all. You should ensure that you have meta-procedures in place which drive the review and update of this content. In some cases a simple regular review date will suffice but it makes sense to choose this based on something other than just a certain number of months elapsing. For example, here in Africa it would probably be appropriate to review the ‘missed pickup’ and ‘satellite phone’ procedures at the start of each season. You should also consider having triggers for review; for example losing a key staff member could trigger a review. Simple document workflow technologies such as those in Microsoft SharePoint and particularly the more sophisticated approaches offered by K2 BlackPoint can allow these sorts of triggers to be automated.

The Intergen Management Consulting team work with companies across New Zealand to implement the sort of meta-procedures and systems that support the above. I’m not sure if I can twist their arm to get out to Africa, but, if you’d like to talk to them about working with your business, contact the Practice Principal, Mr Paddy Payne: paddy.payne@intergen.co.nz. If you’re just looking for someone to go kayaking with you can always email me: chris.auld@intergen.co.nz.

Posted by: Chris Auld, Chief Technology Officer, Executive Director | 04 August 2009

Tags: TechEd, SharePoint, Dynamics CRM, K2 BlackPoint

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