Are you running an Incredible Machine?

Back in the early 90’s, there was a series of computer games called ‘The Incredible Machine“.  The games were a series of intricate puzzles that required you to create complicated, off the wall Rube Goldberg machines to solve simple tasks.


The task could be as simple as getting a ball from one end of the screen to the other, but in the game you had to use the devices you had on hand to make that happen, rockets, treadmills, levers, springs, gravity – a big part of the fun was coming up with the most creative way to solve the problem.

Ultimately, for the harder puzzles, you ended up using a lot of trial and error to find a solution.

In fact the designers were very careful to simulate physics and natural laws in such a way that the results of any given action were repeatable. 

Who wants to build a machine that only works sometimes?

How does this tie into small business?  A big part of the challenge with a small business (or any business for that matter) is developing your processes and organizations in such a way that what you do is repeatable and doesn’t rely on chance, a winning personality or even a specific skill set for the outcome.

Have you ever heard of a business that had that ‘superstar’ performer that did stuff that nobody else could do?  In small business environments, a lot of the time that superstar is the owner – which makes it really hard to expand the business (or take a vacation…see Are you stuck trading time for money?)

The same thing happens in a corporate environment, but generally it’s less of a risk or an impact because it’s really unusual that any 1 person could impact a sizable part of a company’s operations.  However it happens all the time in a small business.

One way to minimize risk – and ultimately set yourself free, is to build your business into an Incredible Machine.  Not in the sense of complicated contraptions to complete simple tasks (although sometimes it feels that way – payroll, accounting, creating your TPS Report…with a cover page).

No – building your Incredible Machine is about creating and documenting repeatable action plans that you need to run your business.

These action plans will cover everything from how you produce your product or service down to how your creating your marketing plan, tracking time and expenses and communicating vacation plans.

Obviously this is a big task – after all it is an Incredible Machine, but the good news is it can be done.

Q: How do you eat an Elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

Here’s a recommended approach for eating this elephant:

  1. Create an overall outline of the areas that you need to cover with plans.  Don’t worry about getting everything right, you’ll be adding and changing as you go along.  I would suggest doing this online – maybe using a set of folders on a shared space to organize the areas (i.e. operations, marketing, hr, etc.).
  2. Once you’ve got a structure in place, set up a monthly meeting and determine how large of a bite you want to take each month.  My recommendation would be to shoot for 1 action plan documented every week – at the end of a year, you’ll have around 50 completed which should be a pretty big chunk of what you do.
  3. At the monthly meeting you will review what got documented last month and decide what’s on the agenda for the current month.  A lot of times this can be issue driven – use the act of detailing and documenting the process to resolve issues.
  4. Obviously this isn’t just for the business owner – a better answer is to have managers and staff create the plans that fall into their areas and review them as a group.  You don’t need to spend too much time reviewing or trying to perfect them – the real answer is to use them and have them updated / changed over time based on actually using the processes.
  5. This process should tie into any existing operations manuals you have.  If you’ve got some processes that are already well documented, then you’re ahead of the game.
  6. As your staff brings you issues, you will be able to direct them to the action plans for resolutions.  If there’s not an action plan in place, they’ll need to write one or if necessary they can update one that’s already there.

Remember, the goal is to build your machine in such a way that ultimately you as the business owner aren’t needed for day to day operations and everything will run just fine without you – whether it’s a weeklong vacation or a 3 month sabbatical.

When you’ve documented your business in this way, not only will you as the owner be able to free yourself up to focus on business growth strategies (or more time for yourself…) but you’ve also created a full-fledged operations manual that will increase the Sales Price / value of your business immensely once you get to the point of starting to think about an exit plan.

So, what’s your Incredible Machine look like?   Now is the perfect time to start building your machine!

Shawn Kinkade

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