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The Road To Operational Excellence [Starts With a Simple Spreadsheet]

The Road To Operational Excellence [Starts With a Simple Spreadsheet]

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Whether you’re interested in the path from chemist to Chief Operating Officer, where to go in a zombie apocalypse (scuba diving, obviously), or how to travel the world on a dime, Travis Cormier is your guy.

What else is Aethereal's COO an expert at? 

Process development. Continuous improvement. Attracting people who are agents of change. And empowering them to achieve operational excellence—individually and collectively.

Tango’s CEO and Co-founder Ken Babcock sat down with Travis to understand how to:

  • Use a process and task audit to catalog your team’s day-to-day work
  • Go beyond “stop, start, and continue” to ensure everyone’s contributing to company growth
  • Turn an exercise (that’s admittedly more work upfront) into a beloved, bi-annual tradition 
  • Set your team up for success as your operations function evolves and expands

Looking for the top takeaways from the podcast—and the customizable template? You’re in the right place.

Three signs you could benefit from a process and task audit

A process and task audit is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an inventory of tasks created over a period of 1-2 weeks (or longer if needed), with the goal of understanding the work that you, your direct reports, or anyone at your company is doing more deeply. 

What are people good—and GREAT—at? What are they not good at? How much time does each task take, and how much value does each activity bring to the business? By asking people to self-reflect and self-report—and by keeping the questions separate from performance or utilization—you can initiate conversations purely to help bring people closer to their "zones of genius."

We’ll recap Travis’s best tactical advice towards that aim below, but before we do, what are some signals that you or your team might benefit from giving a process and task audit a try?

  1. Regardless of your level, title, or tenure, the majority of your workday feels like it’s getting eaten up by repetitive tasks that take time away from the more valuable work you know you can and should be prioritizing. The struggle is real, and you feel it more days than you don’t.
  2. Your direct reports have spoken—and they have too much work. But when you drill down into their feedback and try to alleviate some of the overwhelm, they have trouble articulating how they’re spending their time (and what they could be doing instead).
  3. You’re a business leader, and you’re realizing that it’s past time for you to take some work off your plate—but you aren’t sure what to let go of, and what only you can do.
💡 Tango Tip

Process and task audits can be done by anyone at any level.

They're useful for individuals who want to right-size the scope of their role, minimize work-related stress, job craft and lean into their strengths, and/or initiate more strategic career conversations.

They're equally useful for people managers who want access to an assessment tool for workload management (at a micro level), and see the benefits in clearly understanding where existing teams do and don't excel (at a macro level).

Nuances to know before approaching your team

If you’re a team lead, department head, or C-Suite executive, initiating a process and task audit may bring up a bunch of emotions for the people you work with.

Without context about why you’d like to run this exercise, some people may feel anxious and spiral about your motives and their job security. Others may bristle and feel micromanaged. Anyone feeling overworked may feel unheard and resentful—because documenting what they do all day, is, admittedly, adding more work to an already overflowing pile.

You’ll have an easier time getting more genuine and enthusiastic participation if you can check all four of these boxes:

1. You’re already in the habit of having regular workload discussions. 

This isn’t the first time you’ve asked one of your reports how their work has been, what they do and don’t like, what’s taking more or less time than anticipated, etc. 

2. You aren’t dismissive when people give feedback, and you’ve established (two-way) trust. 

Your team knows you’re someone who opens the door early and takes small steps to indicate you’re taking them and their feedback seriously. It doesn’t mean you always do what they want, but you’ve proven that you’re committed to making the best decisions to balance their work with the needs of the company. There’s trust there. When people have too much work, they know they can speak up. And when they [temporarily] don’t have enough, they aren’t afraid to do the same, because they know deloading is an option when things pick back up again. 

3. You’re transparent about the big picture and your end game. 

In this case—you want to look out for everyone’s individual well-being, strengths, and interests, *and* ensure all the hard work people are putting in aligns with 1) the highest value each employee can bring, and 2) the company’s overall growth goals.

"I see process and task audits as a way to give individuals ownership over their work and make change within their organizations.

And I've experienced how rewarding it can be to everyone when organizations empower their people."

-Travis Cormier, COO of Aethereal

4. You’ve established that tasks in motion shouldn’t necessarily stay in motion.

Who hasn’t fallen into the trap of continuing to do something just because that’s how it’s always been done? 

Travis is quick to normalize this particular kind of inertia—and remind his team that there are efficiencies to be gained at any given moment. It’s common to waste time on legacy tasks. But to develop an unfair advantage, organizations need to become expert at identifying the work they no longer need to do.

A four-step process and task audit (+ a customizable template)

By this point in the conversation, Travis had already proven to be a dream podcast guest. And then he went ahead and set the bar a little higher—by sharing a customizable process and task audit template in our community.

Can operational excellence really be traced back to such a simple spreadsheet? That’s half the beauty of it.

This template doesn’t need a lengthy instruction manual. It doesn’t ask for a single piece of information that isn’t 100% necessary to the exercise. And best of all, it gives you a clear framework to catalog all of the work that’s being done—and make quick decisions about what to do with it.

A summary of the four steps needed to drive a successful process and task audit.

Step 1: Ask your reports to make a copy of your process and task template

If you have a large team, you may want to make a master spreadsheet to corral everyone’s responses, and organize them by name and start date.

Step 2: Encourage your team to take inventory of their tasks for 1-2 weeks. 

You’re looking for an exhaustive list. Including things like answering emails, updating project management tools, fielding Slack messages, and working your way through 20+ subtasks within a larger project. Ideally, individual tasks should be as granular as needed, but broad enough to evaluate independently from other tasks. Ultimately, you’ll use this data to drive collaborative conversations with each of your direct reports at the end of the audit.

Step 3: Give everyone an opportunity to evaluate their personal competency for each task, assign a perceived value to the company, and share their stance on what should happen to the task moving forward.

This is where things start to get interesting, if you can convince everyone to be open-minded and operate from a place of abundance. 

On personal competency 

To evaluate personal competency, Travis suggests offering no more than four choices:

  1. Incompetent
  2. Competent
  3. Excellent
  4. Unique Ability 

The first three are self-explanatory. The fourth is worth double-clicking on.

"When evaluating competency, claiming you have a unique ability means you're able to do something that 99% of other people can't. Your team should use this label sparingly, and take caution not to use it just because they may not trust other people to do the task in question."

-Travis Cormier, COO of Aethereal

If you’re a friend of the pod to many podcasts, you know some of the best conversations can start out as an off-hand observation or off-the-cuff question. This was the case here, as Ken and Travis got into the importance of detaching processes from specific people, when possible.

Too often, processes become tied to a single person. We point each other to the (one) expert on a topic or task, because they’re the ones who know all about that thing. 

🚩 Here’s red flag #1. Critical functions shouldn’t be tied to a person. They should be approached in ways that make it easy for anyone to step in and get the job done. The idea behind process development, after all, is to build something that any number of people could do at any time. Otherwise—what happens when your (one) in-house expert leaves the company? Everyone's left to fend for themselves.

🚩 Here’s red flag #2. According to 2023 Tango research, 75% of folks say less than half of their processes are documented. This makes knowledge hoarding really, really hard to overcome—whether it’s done intentionally (out of pride, stubbornness, or insecurity), or it’s merely a byproduct of how frustrating it can be to create documentation that’s detailed and also easy enough to follow independently.

Ken calls this “the Goldilocks Zone of Context.” Documentation that falls into this realm manages to both empower people to serve themselves *and* avoid overwhelming them (or putting them to sleep). 💤

When knowledge hoarding is done on purpose, you’ve got a real problem. If people on your team aren’t sharing what they’ve learned with each other, it’s often because they’re feeling protective over what they can offer. In this case:

“There needs to be this mindset shift around the value each person on your team brings.

It’s not about how many things only they and they alone can do. It’s about how many people they can enable to zip through processes they built, without coming to them with questions.

That’s the dream. That’s how you work together. That’s how you grow a company.”

-Ken Babcock, CEO and Co-founder at Tango

On perceived value to the business 

Perceived value is so critical that Travis believes it warrants its own column in your process and task template

He recommends asking team members to break down the value of a task in $/hour—which will come in handy for next steps.

On where to go from here (aka what should happen to each task moving forward)

To wrap up the written audit, each person on your team should have the opportunity to make a recommendation about the fate of each task on their list.

Again, Travis recommends populating a dropdown with a few options to choose from: 

  1. Stop 🛑: All signs point to a task that doesn’t need to be done at all.
  2. Delegate 🙏: A good thing for someone else to do, likely internally. Typically either associated with lower value tasks or higher value tasks where the current task owner’s personal competency isn’t there or isn’t great. 
  3. Outsource 👋🏾: A good thing for someone else to do, maybe externally. (Think contractor vs. co-worker.) Your $/hr column will be a good starting point for determining what pay grade will make sense.
  4. Keep ✅: Something the current task owner should continue doing. Most logical when personal competency and/or $/hour is very high.
  5. Automate 🤖: A task that can be done with AI, so no one has to do it! 

Step 4: Repeat the steps above 1-2 times a year to maintain visibility into what you’re working on (individually and collectively), re-evaluate needs over time, and ensure your work is benefitting the business.

If you run your process and task audit well—with transparency, empathy, and trust—your employees won’t hate it. They may even like and look forward to it.

Here’s what’s in it for your team, according to Travis:

Seven positive outcomes of a process and task audit from an employee's perspective.

The future of operations—and a new kind of job to be done 

Process and task audits have another major benefit, too. It’s one Ken and Travis agree business leaders don’t talk about a lot, and should talk about more. 

Being part of an “operationally excellent” team means you’re succeeding at doing everything you can to make people’s jobs easier.

This shift usually takes a little unlearning and a lot of reassurance from leadership, since many of us have been taught we should judge and be judged on the effort we put into our work. Travis argues it’s the outcomes of our work, not the time and energy expended, that matters. 

"We shouldn't be working to make our jobs any harder than they should be. When we make our jobs easier, it means we all have more capacity to contribute in other ways."

-Travis Cormier, COO of Aethereal

Travis predicts the most operationally excellent teams will shift to building processes specifically engineered to improve people’s efficiency. These teams will be run by what he calls “agents of change,” or operations professionals with the most underrated skill in operations today. These employees will excel at taking inventory of the status quo, identifying opportunities to create efficiencies, and codifying processes to remove the most tedious aspects of work.

"I think that the future of operations will involve using automations and operations together to look at people and what they're doing, and make what they're doing easier.

So that they can spend less time on busy work and more time on meaningful work, and everyone in an organization can be contributing to its growth."

-Travis Cormier, COO of Aethereal

Agents of change will be the most in-demand hires—because they will go beyond doing, say, 10 tasks a day, and instead, drive incremental improvements that have a 10x impact on their organizations. Their work—and their knowledge—will scale. Soon, operations won’t be about the daily doing of tasks. It’ll be about overseeing the systems and processes that make people’s jobs easier to do. It’ll be about buying back time to be creative and tackle difficult problems. It’ll be about standardizing and delegating what works, and experimenting with what to build and solve next.

Where do those conversations and shifts start? For the Aethereal team, it’s a no-brainer: with a bi-annual process and task audit. 

Want to hear more from other operations, training, and enablement experts? Subscribe to Change Enablers Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube. This helps you, because you’ll never miss an episode. And this helps us, because you’ll never miss an episode. 🙂

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