Why Businesses Need Systems

I’ve been in business for a long time.  It’s easy to forget when I learned something I take for granted today.  Over dinner the other day, a much younger friend said, “I don’t understand the word “systems.”  I think I’m supposed to have them in my business, but I don’t really know why, and the word is kinda scary.”  I paid attention.

Hum. I got paid a fair chunk o’change over 20 years to be a “systems designer” and work with other people designing different aspects of great big systems that run state and county governments, and in same cases, major parts of the US military.  I guess when you look at something that big from the point of view of a solopreneur, it can look like a big hairy monster.

Doesn’t have to.

Try this on:

A “system” is anything you create, that helps you do a series of tasks more than once.

ANY well-executed sports play is a system, in ANY multi-player sport.

Consider the alternative: every player on the field, on both teams, would have to study the situation, evaluate what’s happening, and decide what to do–while the play is underway. When you have a system, on the other hand, you simply do the next step, WITHOUT having to figure out what the next step is.

  • People who always hang their car keys in the same place have a system. They don’t have to think about where to look for the keys when they’re ready to go out. They know.
  • People who lay out their clothes the night before an important appointment have a system. They don’t have to think in the morning, and if something is worn, torn, or dirty, they have time to figure out another outfit.

Systems can be big; big enough to run a county land records office or airport. But they can be tiny, too. Unless your life is total minute-to-minute chaos, you probably use 101 systems to get through the day.

  • Do you have any self-guidance about filling up the car when the tank’s on 3/4 full?
  • Getting cash before a big date?
  • Getting food and drink together for a tailgate party?
  • Using PayPal to collect reimbursement for the tickets to the game?

If you do, you have a system.

Separate Planning & Activity

If you have to figure out what to do next, you are not DOING what you need to do next.  Systems solve that part of the problem for you.  When you have a system for any set of linked tasks, you don’t have to think about what comes next.  If you get interrupted or distracted or pulled away for any reason, you know what to come back to.

Working with Employees

Systems are the answer to, “How we do it here.”

As a business owner, it’s not that hard to learn what you have to do for most of your business, and then do it.  This may not feel much like a “system,” and maybe it’s hard to see the real benefit.  Where it really matters is when you get employees, either real or virtual.  Once you have someone working for you, the “system” is what lets you tell your employee WHAT to do.  You don’t have to hire someone smart enough to figure it out:

  1. on their own, and
  2. the same way you would.

Once you teach employees how to follow the system, you’re free to turn your attention to some other element of your business.

Build or Buy, and Swipe…

You can build systems for your business, or you can buy systems–particularly, marketing.  Different entrepreneurs will have different approaches.  In either case, thinking of your business as a series of systems can help you to “swipe” (or borrow, or leverage) ideas from other businesses, perhaps not in your industry.  EVERYONE has to do lead generation.  Maybe a business in a different industry has a method that would work for you?  If you think of what your problem in terms of improving your lead generation system (rather than, “I don’t have enough business…”), you might begin to see solutions all over the place.

Finally, a word about “process improvement,” which is usually thought of as a big business activity.  Before you can improve a process, you have to have one.  Once you have a process (which is pretty much the same thing as a system, from your point of view), you can look at each of the steps and think about how they could be done better.  If you have a bill paying process, where are the bottlenecks?  What about a lost-client recovery system?  (What’s that?  a defined set of steps for looking at your client list and contacting people who haven’t called you in six months.)