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Common-Sense Small Business Policies & Procedures
by Bill Collier

Successful companies don’t make it up as they go along.

For your business to be successful, you need a set of policies, procedures and systems.


Whether written or not, every company has policies. Policies cover things like whether a product can be returned, under what circumstances an employee will be fired, how long an employee needs to be on the job before being eligible for health insurance, and whether company computers may be used for personal emails. Here are some guidelines:

• Keep your policies simple, clear, and as few as possible.
• Don’t create a policy for everything, but do create them for important issues.

A good time to develop a policy is when someone asks for the first time, “What’s our policy for ...?” If you don’t have an answer and you expect the question to come up again in the future, you may as well develop a policy to cover that situation. Discuss among the management team or, if appropriate, get an attorney involved.

Procedures and Systems

Can you imagine a fast food restaurant that allowed each employee to decide how to make a burger? Or a bank without formal processes for accepting a deposit?

I’m not suggesting creation of unnecessary red tape or nonsense. I am suggesting that …

• once someone spends the time to figure out how to do something, it’s a waste to let other employees spend the time (also known as “money”) to figure it out again.
• it is irresponsible to let the company’s know-how go out the door daily at 5PM.
• you don’t want important business processes to be done “Jim’s way” or “Judy’s way.” You want important business processes done the company’s way!
• the only path to consistent product and service quality is to have simple, clear procedures and systems.

So, what’s the difference between a procedure and a system? I can probably best explain by example.

Let’s take hiring. You might have a procedure for conducting an interview. (I use the word “procedure” pretty loosely. It might just be a simple checklist. In my mind, a procedure is anything in writing – even in pictures – to guide the steps someone takes to accomplish a task.) You also have a job application and a form asking for the applicant’s approval to perform various background checks.

All of these checklists, procedures and forms make up a hiring system.

Please don’t get hung up on these terms. Feel free to give these things different names. The important concept is documenting:

• what you do
• who does it
• when it gets done
• how it gets done in sufficient detail to ensure quality and consistency, and prevent duplication of effort.

Let’s look at another example that can help make my point. Suppose you start a store and are the only employee. In the early days, you’ll be doing all kinds of tasks ... some simple, and some complicated. One task might involve buying and restocking product for sale in your store.

Let’s say you hire a new store sales employee, Kathy, and you want her to take over the purchasing process. Your training choices include:

• Show her how you do it, and hope she takes notes or has a good memory, or
• Type up a simple procedure and give it to her while she’s being trained.

Which do you think will work out best?

If you go the route of most small businesses – which is to show rather than write a procedure – eventually Kathy “gets it.” She starts doing the job, becomes good at it, and over time probably adopts new approaches to the job that you don’t even know about. These changes may impact important things like your cost or delivery lead times. But, none of her improvements get written down.

After a year on the job, Kathy quits. All of this knowledge that Kathy gained – which belongs to you – walks out the door.

So you hire her replacement and show him how to do it the old way. You haven’t been involved in purchasing for over a year. Kathy handled it. You don’t know anything about all the changes she made to the process. You’ve lost a year’s worth of important business knowledge ... because nobody bothered to write down a few simple bits of information.

So, even if you’re the only employee, take the time to write down what you do and how you do it. Put it in your computer and print it out. By the time you have your first employee, you will probably have a good start on an procedures or operation manual. Think how much easier it will be to train your folks and how much smoother the operation will run.

Remember: Successful companies - like yours - don’t make it up as they go along.


Bill Collier is a St. Louis-based business coach, consultant and speaker. He is the author of the book “How to Succeed as a Small Business Owner … and Still Have a Life.” His website is, and his email is

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