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How Systems Can Change The World (or at least your sanity)

There was the Stone Age.

In the Stone Age, small business owners learned the best ways of doing things. Then, they hired staff and they tried to get their staff to do those same things the way they had done them earlier.

Of course, their staff tried to follow. But the small business owner had other tasks to do, so they left their staff alone. But somehow, their staff could not do those things in exactly the same way the owner did them before. Something was always forgotten, one step perhaps, or a key ingredient. The small business owners got frustrated. They showed their staff again. Over time, their staff again kept missing something. In fact. left on their own, their staff often found different ways of doing those things. They thought it was better, but the owners did not agree! In fact, services started to suffer. Their customers just weren’t as satisfied as when the owners did things for them. They complained that each time they bought something, they got something different. I mean, when Fred ordered a Brontosaurus Burger, he expected it to taste the same every time. Yet, sometimes it was served rare, sometimes well done; sometimes it had lost of sauce, sometimes none. What was going on?

So the poor Stone Age small business owner had to keep re-training his people and more often than not had to go back and do it himself. This really was stopping his ability to grow and open more stores because he spent so much of his time training staff, correcting mistakes or doing things himself. He was driving himself insane!

Then came systems, and the world changed!

The small business owner came out of the Stone Age into the age of automation and the systemised business.

Once the small business owner was shown how to implement systems in his business, he made it work like a well-oiled machine. He found out that: –

  • Once systems were written, he could train his staff in the system, not the work. This meant that he did not have to go back to square one every time the staff made a mistake – they could just go over the written system and track their progress and fix their own mistakes.
  • With systems, whenever a staff member left, he could easily replace the quality of their work in the new person because they just followed the system that was there before.
  • Customers started to see the improvement. In hotels, they found that the towels and toiletries were always replaced and set out exactly according to the system, every time. In restaurants, their hamburgers came at exactly the same temperature and with exactly the same amount of sauce. In accounting practices, they found that their tax returns were always provided to them with exactly the same number of copies and always marked where they had to sign. Systems gave customers a predictable result.
  • The small business owner found it easy to open another store. He copied his written systems, hired staff, and trained them in the systems. Every time he walked into a different store, it was exactly the same as the last one and everything was made and sold in exactly the same way.

In fact, with written systems in place, small business owners no longer have to do everything themselves in order to maintain the same quality. Apart from the improvement to the business, it saves their sanity!



There are some morals to this story.

First, systems must be written.

Second, train people in the system rather than in the individual tasks – that’s easier to replicate than task by task instructions.

Third, when things break down (and they will) go back to the system – improve it, re-trace work along the workflow, concentrate on getting procedural steps right.

The question is, how can a growing small business, perhaps with some existing chaotic behaviour, implement systems to create predictable workflows and results?

Step 1 is to analyse your business to see how many different workflows there are.

For example, all businesses will have a sales workflow. There’s a flow of work from when the enquiry first comes in, to when the sale is made. All businesses will have a bookkeeping workflow – work that happens from when an invoice is received to when it is paid. Some of these may have sub-workflows. For example in the bookeeping workflow, there may be the accounts payable workflow, the accounts receivable workflow, the payroll workflow, the banking workflow, and so on.

Identify all the workflows in your business and any sub-workflows. These will become your systems and sub-systems.

Next, articulate your vision, and how these systems need to meet the outcomes of the vision.

For example, your vision should be expressing who are your customers and how they are serviced. In this case, any system front-facing to the customer should ensure that the outcomes meet those expectations, whether they rely on quality, size, speed or whatever other indicators. An expression in your vision about your people means that any systems affecting your staff need to meet the expectations of that part of the vision. So for example, if the vision means to have efficient staff, then systems to do with training or performance management need to concentrate on achieving efficiency.

Set some goals for systemising your business. What do you want to delegate? What do you want to automate? Is there anything you would like to improve?

At this stage, you may have ended up with a large number of systems to work on. Don’t be overwhelmed by this because this is not a process you can, or need to do in a short time.

Simply identify any urgent systems. Perhaps you need to look at these urgently because someone is leaving and you need to capture their work so that you can replace them. Or there may be an external factor affecting another system such as receiving too many customer complaints. Then work on one at a time in order of urgency.

Working with the people who operate that system, follow the work through the system and write the steps taken in detail. For example, if the urgent system is the order-fulfilment system, start from when the order is received, track what is done with it, where it goes, and who deals with it at each step of the way, right through until the order is shipped. Once you have recorded it, discuss with the people involved if there are any elements in it that could be done more efficiently, and change or remove any repetition or unnecessary steps.

Then test the written system. Take a new order and walk it through the system asking everyone involved to follow the written instructions rather than do what they normally do. Make some final changes if you need to, then finalise the document. For the next few weeks, make sure that everyone using that system is aware of the documented system and have them ensure they use it rather than fall back on old habits. Make it a competition.

Repeat this to document the next most urgent system and so on until you have dealt with all the urgent systems.

Next work on the remaining systems that are to do with the customer relationship cycle. The customer relationship cycle is where you attract prospects, convert them into customers, fulfil their orders, expand their orders or obtain referrals from them, and then attract more prospects.

However, work on the fulfilment systems first. Get your ability to fulfil orders right before you work on attracting and converting.

Fulfilment systems are to do with fulfilling orders all the way to invoicing for them. Then, work on systems to do with conversion (sales), then expansion or referral, and finally attraction (marketing).

Finally, work on your other systems one at a time.

It may take you some time, even up to a year to accumulate detailed procedures for each of your systems. This time is well spent because it means that you end up with a replicable manual of systems that were designed to provide the quality and the predictable results you require. Throughout that time, as you work on each system, your staff should be re-trained on operating the systems, and measured by the results those systems should produce.

Once you have completed the work however, you need to maintain the use of the systems and their uniformity. This means that you need to plan ahead, build in automation, and then scale. Review the systems regularly and accept feedback. Create a culture of continuously looking for improvement.

Small business owners need to move ahead from the Stone Age where they did everything themselves.

Business systems mean that you can work on your business and not in it. Using business systems you can delegate effectively, you can seek to automate parts of the business, you can design a standard quality of delivery, and you can replicate, scale and expand.

If you want to work on your systems, teikoh.com provides a free template for developing your policies and procedures. Download it by clicking on this link and then use the templates to document your systems as suggested above.

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