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The Stopping List

Marti Benjamin

Business life today is driven by lists checklists, project lists, to-do lists, priority lists tools to keep our time and task on track, to produce more, generate more profit and be more focused in what we do.

But most of us are overlooking the list that might actually help us be more effective: The Stopping List.

This powerful little list is comprised of the things that no longer add the value for which they were originally designed those processes, tasks and systems that have outlived their purpose and now only drain time and attention from the true needs of your business.

Ineffective systems are not hard to spot. Look for processes that seem to be just cumbersome habits, ones where, when you stop to ask why things are done that way, the answer is, “We’ve always done it that way around here.” When you hear those words, you have identified a strong candidate for your stopping list.

Often the stopping list candidate is burrowed deep inside staff habits. Take the experience of a new business owner who discovered that her company was laden with manual systems implemented by the previous owner. One of her first investments in the company was a new software program that captured vital operations and financial data and made it easy to retrieve and report as needed.

The technology replaced the old manual process, but employees complained that the software was more work than before. They resisted using it. They continued with their manual system alongside the new software system.

The new owner put that manual system on her stopping list. Only after she did that, requiring everyone in the company to use the software to its full capacity, was she able to reduce the workload and gain the benefits of her automated system. Processes that have become habits are often good stopping list candidates.

If you are not sure where your stopping list candidates are hiding, here are some questions that will help you identify them:

1. Ask why, again and again and again. One technique from the field of quality management is the “Five Whys.” Ask why a process is performed in the way it is. When you have the answer, ask why again, including the answer from the first “Why?” Continue to ask “Why?” until you have asked the question at least five times, digging deeper with each round to see whether the underlying purpose of the process or system continues to have merit in the current environment.

2. Do we achieve the same purpose with another process somewhere else in the company? Redundancy reigns in most companies, even in small businesses with just a few employees. You have been a victim of redundancy if you have ever called a customer service line and been asked for your name and account number more than once…and who has not had that experience? Put redundancy on your stopping list and eliminate it to reduce cost. Do a job once, do it right the first time, and stop repeating it unnecessarily. Meanwhile, implement systems that allow for sharing information across the company rather than collecting it repeatedly and storing it in multiple locations.

3. If I were designing this system today, based on my current knowledge of the company needs, what would work best? One way to discard the old and align with your company’s new realities is to embrace the perspective that today is your first day of business. Start with a blank canvas and design the system that fits current realities and the predictable future. Re-visit this question often, at least annually, to keep your business systems current and productive.

4. Is there a better way to produce the same outcome? Begin with the end in mind the outcome you want to produce and work backward to see new possibilities. Every business system exists to achieve an end result, or at least it did at one time. Hold a clear image of the end result and avoid the temptation to get lost in the steps along the way, some of which are clever detours that add little or no value big stopping list candidates. Use process management tools such as process flow charts to identify redundancy and dead ends and Critical Path Analysis to see how tasks might be combined or sequenced more effectively.

5. What problem did you solve to create the one you have now? Trace your company’s steps back to the original problem. Is there a better way to address that problem? One that has a smaller impact on resources (time, money)? The point of this question is to make sure you are solving the right problem, the one at the core of the situation, not just a symptom.

Once you’ve identified candidates for your stopping list, post it prominently in front of you. It is a powerful tool for evaluating and re-designing business processes. It highlights those activities that take resources without returning commensurate value, and when those tasks and processes are stopped or replaced, the result is a greater return on the investment of time, money, creativity and effort. The result is success.