Working Procedures: Benefits of doing things consistently

Working Procedures: Benefits of doing things consistently

Working Procedure Diagram
Working Procedure Diagram

I’ve been busy. One of the things which got me through the busy period was that I have “Working Procedures” for some of the boring but important tasks I have to do. Having these things documented made it much easier for me to delegate them or simply tell myself to get on and do them.

“Busy-ness” can come about for all sorts of reasons, including distractions and interruptions from the outside world and higher priority project work. In my case it was a mixture of all of these and a few more too!

I’ve always been keen on writing things down, but I sometime last year I discovered the work of Sam Carpenter and his “Work the System”.  At first I thought “Work the System” meant taking advantage of the way things worked and “cheating” in some way. That was wrong. Sam’s point is that it is easy to spend one’s time in “crisis management” or as Sam puts it – “fire killing”. . Instead, Sam proposes that we invest time in writing procedures or “maintaining the machines”. That way, over time, we will perform tasks more consistently and our performance will improve. Reading Sam’s book (and I have no connection with Sam Carpenter. I don’t expect he even knows I exist) convinced me that this was something worth trying. I tried it out and I think that it is helping me and my business be more consistent and make progressive improvements.

Working Procedures: Benefits

The benefits of using a working procedure are:

  • Nobody has to remember or research how to do the task.
  • The task is performed consistently. The way it is done this time is the same as the way it was done last time.
  • If a problem occurs, then the procedure documents what was being done (and the expected outcome)
  • The Working Procedure creates a framework for documenting the solution to a problem and therefore incrementally improving the procedure and the way we work.
  • The Working Procedure forms the basis for delegating performing the task.

Working Procedures: Candidates

I’m not that keen on maintenance and administration. I don’t think I’m alone in that either! I know maintenance and administration tasks are necessary but I used to make excuses, and put them off till tomorrow. The trouble with doing that is that a backlog builds up, especially when I’m busy. That backlog gives rise to anxiety which becomes a distraction, that’s not a good situation.

One of my Working Procedures is getting my website backed up. It isn’t difficult but it needs to be done. Now that I have it written down, I just do the procedure (or even better, give it to someone else!) and it gets done – consistently.

Working Procedures: Getting Started

Snapshot of "Website Backup" Working Procedure
Snapshot of “Website Backup” Working Procedure

I think I can hear someone saying “but I don’t have time to write the procedure”. Well, I think you do. All I did the first time was write down what I was going to do and then check off the items as I did them (and make some minor adjustments). When I was finished I saved the check-list. The next time I did a back-up I got out the procedure. The second time around it was quicker and easier, because I didn’t have to think too hard about what I had to do. The third and fourth times the task got progressively easier and what’s more, when I needed to make minor adjustments, I already had the framework for recording them.


There is almost no downside to this. Having Working Procedures, especially for the tasks which we want to avoid helps get them done. It worked for me. Trying out the approach doesn’t have to cost anything at all. If it works for you, you can do more of it. If it doesn’t work for you then you haven’t lost very much.

Learn to read SQL Databases

Do you know how to read SQL databases? By “read” I mean really get the most out of the database. If for some reason you were presented with an unfamiliar database containing a lot of tables, would you know what to do? If not, then you are not alone.

Many people: programmers, developers and analysts are taught the basics of SQL, they know how to write a SELECT query and can even use JOIN to write queries involving more than one table, but relatively few are shown how to read SQL and interpret the database structure itself. This is a pity, because the structure of a database is often very well documented. What is more, that documentation is incorporated into the database itself. That means that it is available and it is up to date. The problem is, most people don’t look at the database in that way. They concentrate on the content, rather than the structure. When they want to know which tables to look at, they tend to ask the local “expert”.

Asking the expert is a good thing to do, but it has a number of problems. The first and most serious problem is “how expert is the expert?” and the second is the problem that the expert may be busy.

I was prompted to think about this problem a little while ago when someone asked about “How to ‘dig in’ to a large database” on one of the forums I visit. I gave an answer which several people found helpful and which I documented here in my blog.

Over the intervening period I have refined the method I described and reduced it to something I call “DOGI”.

The DOGI method
The DOGI method
  • D = Diagram
  • O = Organise
  • G = Group
  • I = Inside

I like simple acronyms. They make things memorable and aid learning.

The approach I suggest to read SQL is really quite simple. It starts by getting an overview of the database by using whatever tool you have and then organising the diagram in order to make it easier to understand. This “organised” diagram makes it much easier to recognise groups of related tables which can then be investigated in more depth. This approach makes the investigation process more systematic and easier to plan.

I have created a course which teaches this method. I’ve structured it as what I term “an extended tutorial”. I start with one of Microsoft’s example databases and then use the method to investigate it. I surprised myself with how much information I was able to glean.

This course is suitable for anyone how can write a simple SELECT statement. By simple I mean “SELECT * FROM TableName”. When you have completed the course, you will have seen the DOGI method applied to one of Microsoft’s databases and will be able to repeat this yourself. More significantly, when you have completed this course you be able to use the DOGI method to “read SQL databases” and make yourself “the expert”. You won’t have to ask which tables you need to look at, because you will know. You will know what the tables are doing and you will be able to relate them to what the application can and cannot do.

I teach using a mixture of lectures and demonstrations. I think you will learn best if you repeat what demonstrate for yourself, but that is entirely optional. With each step you see the DOGI method applied in practice and build your knowledge using what you have learned already. On-line courses set you free to work at your own pace and to review and revisit material, even after you have completed the course.

If I’ve got your interest, then I’ve included links so you can purchase the course at a substantial discount. Go on, have a look now! It’s all supported by a 30 day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee too.

Read SQL like an Expert - 50% Off
SQL: Read a Database like an Expert – 50% Off

Enrol in Read SQL like and Expert

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Reward: Make it worthwhile and memorable!

Reward Package
Give them a reward

When you have done the “close-down” and “lessons learned” things I suggested last month there are a few more activities which I think are really worth considering at the end of a project:

  • Punctuation – Make sure people realise that this is The End.
  • Say “Thank you” – You might be surprised how much people appreciate it.
  • Give small gifts or mementos for people to remember the project by.

These things can be done by management roles, but they can be done informally within a team as well.

What to give as a reward? A little more detail.

Sometimes projects just “peter out”. The last person to leave switches off the lights. I think it is better to have a final social occasion – a project meal or something similar.

Saying “Thank you” costs nothing more than a little effort. People appreciate it and if you work with the same people again they will remember that you appreciated what they did.

Small gifts can be a nice gesture. I have been given some strange things over the years, ranging from the technical (a couple of planes of core memory, and a disk platter), through the practical (some coasters and a set of cuff-links) to the rather strange (a curry cook-book!). All of these things bring back pleasant memories about the projects in question.

Why bother with a reward?

As well as being pleasant, these things serve practical purpose.

  • Bringing the project to an emotional close is a good thing. It is time to finish what are doing and move on to the next activity.
  • You may find yourself working with the same people in the future. This can happen years later, and you may be in quite different roles. Parting company on good terms means that it will be easier to start the new relationship with a good feeling.
  • I think it is good for your reputation to be thought of as being appreciative. This does not mean that you have to be soft. There is no contradiction between being a “hard task-master” and saying “thank you” in various ways.

Think of these activities as being a small speculative investment in the future.

Two words of caution:

  • Do not be seen to be doing these things in a manipulative way. People do not like that and it is generally counter-productive.
  • Do not say you are going to do something (like hold an “end of project meal”) and then not do it. That is demotivating.

Enjoy a break before starting again refreshed!

Success: Congratulations! You’ve arrived.

Successful Project
Successful Project

What do you do when the project is finished? I mean, apart from the party and the sigh of relief? You’ve delivered your project. Maybe you consider it a success, maybe you’re not sure. It doesn’t matter, it’s over now. Celebrate your success!

Part of good project management is learning from your experiences. Now is the perfect time to do lots of little things. Most of them do not take a great deal of effort, but some of them can do you a great deal of good in the future.

Who are we doing this for? Who do we tell that this has been a success?

There can be several groups or individuals here:

  • The Customer
  • Your employer
  • Your colleagues
  • Yourself!

There is an old English saying (in Yorkshire dialect) which goes:

If ever tha does owt for nowt, make sure tha does it for tha’sen!

(If ever you do anything for nothing, make sure you do it for yourself!)

What should you do we do? (to get the most from our success)

We want to get as much benefit as we can out of the experience we have gained.

Ensure that you respect the “intellectual property rights” and confidentiality of others, but make sure you get something out of the experience.

Here are my suggestions for things to do in the wind-down period of the project or immediately after it finishes. Make sure you have something tangible to take away.

  • Update your CV to include the project you have just completed.
  • If you keep a notebook (you should), then review the sections relating to the project.
  • Update your contacts book. Make sure you connect on LinkedIn or similar with the people you want to remain in contact with.
  • Write a short report (maybe just 1 or 2 pages) to yourself, describing what happened – the good, the bad and the ugly!
  • Create a short presentation describing the project and the key learning points. Maybe produce two versions: the “selling version” and the “warts and all” version. Don’t mix them up!

How do you get started?

This is a surprisingly easy thing to do. All you need is the motivation.

There is often a period at the (or shortly after) the end of a project when you will have spare time and may not be sure what to do. I have given you a short list of small activities, all of which will be beneficial.

Use the list at the completion of your next project!

Review: How was it for you?

Review - How was it for you?
Review – How was it for you?

What is your opinion of someone who keeps on making the same mistake? I expect it is probably not very high. Making mistakes is inevitable, but we should learn from them. Having a “review” is one way we can do this.

Having a review means taking the time to look at what we did and how we did it. We can learn from what we did, and do better the next time.

Review: When, How, What?

Hold your review when something is complete and when it is still fresh in people’s minds.

I prefer “light weight”, “low ceremony” activities. Doing our review that way means we can do it quickly and cheaply.  The simplest way is to ask the people involved – “How was it for you?”

Keep it simple. Make the product of your review a few things you plan to improve the next time, and then put those changes into effect.

The idea of reviewing what you have done fits naturally into the iterative structure of Agile projects, but it can also be applied with Waterfall.

Use reviews to improve your productivity:

A review is intended to help us to: “Do it better next time!” The effort which goes into the review must be repaid by the improvements it causes.

  • Remember to include the different groups involved. If we are talking about a specification or requirements document, include: Business Users, Developers and Testers. The objective is not to find “what went wrong?” but to find a way to “do it better!”
  • Keep it simple. Make the product of your review a few things you plan to improve the next time. Make sure your review has some visible effect. People like to feel they have influenced how things are working. On the other hand, people do not like to be ignored. It is demotivating.

Some of the suggestions from different parties may be contradictory. For example: Some people may want more detail and others want to spend less time producing documentation. This is a challenge to your imagination, creativity and skill at negotiation.

What is the next step?

Adding reviews like this to your process is something you can do in a stealthy way. Start by identifying a work-product which is coming up for completion.

  • Who would you involve in your review?
  • When and how are you going to get hold of them?
  • What specific questions will you ask them?
  • How long will you allow yourself to manage the review so you can incorporate its findings into the next suitable activity?

Good luck! Have fun and tell me how you get on with your reviews.