Time to get serious about strengthening your systems

Get the RSS Feed


When I was about ten years old, our roof got in some serious disrepair.  We lived in a house built in 1906, and the creaky beams and bones of wood were showing their age.  The wooden shingles had been damaged by years of rain and wind, and water started to leak through the ceiling.

My hard-working single Mom did her very best to cover all of our needs, but a $3,000 roof was not going to happen.  So we made due, placing pans under the various dripping spots of the ceiling.

I was lying in bed one night, listening to the rain pound outside.  Then, without warning, a big chunk of plasterboard fell on my chest. It didn’t cause any major damage, it just scared the heck out of me.  Our system of staying dry had reached a breaking point.

The same may be true in your business, your health or your home.

I have been reading an interesting book by Sam Carpenter which is called Work the System:  The Simple Mechanics of Working Less and Making More.  He is a telecommunications business owner in Bend, Oregon, who spent the first fifteen years of his business operating in crisis mode.

His “plaster on the chest” moment came when he was one week away from closing his doors.  His health was terrible from working 100-hour weeks, his finances were depleted, his staff was unhappy and customers were angry.  He couldn’t hold on any longer, and faced certain failure.

Then he had an out-of-body experience (surely fueled by lack of sleep!) when he rose up from his situation, looked down on it, and for the first time realized that his entire life and business was built on sloppy systems.  Nothing was documented or planned.  Stuff just “happened,” which was why crisis after crisis continued.

At that moment, he got clear on what he had to do:  take each underlying system in his business one at a time and clean it up.  With flawless systems, clearly defined roles and excellent communication, the business would survive, improve and eventually thrive.

So that is what he did, with the help from his staff.  The process took a long time, but by rigorously examining and documenting every step of every key process in their business, they were able to make leaps and bounds in efficiency.  Providing better service, they raised their rates.  Retention improved, and training new employees was much easier.

On the personal side, Sam did the same thing.  He made health and sleep a priority.  He respected the system of his body, and only ate healthy foods.  He started to exercise.

His former 100-hour workweeks are now 2 hours.  His company is successful and his life is flourishing.

How can you translate this systems thinking into your own life?

If you are in business for yourself,  you can see that every part of your operation is based on processes and systems.  They may be a home-grown jury-rigged, inefficient systems, but they are systems nonetheless.  To start:
  1. Define the strategic objective of your business.  Carpenter gives very specific examples of this in the book.  You can also use a much higher-level description like Guy Kawasaki’s example of “mantras” in his book The Art of the Start.  His personal mantra is “empower entrepreneurs.”  I am not totally decided on mine yet, but a key objective is definitely “promote liberation.”
  2. Define the general operating principles of your businesss. Operating principles guide your decisions, and allow you to choose which systems and processes are truly necessary to run your business.  Some examples from Carpenter’s business are:-We focus on just a few manageable services.  Although we watch for new opportunities, in the end we provide “just a few services implemented in superb fashion, rather than a complex array of average-quality offerings.-The money we save or waste is not Monopoly money.  We are careful not to devalue the worth of a dollar just because it has to do with the business.-We study to increase our skills.  A steady diet of reading and contemplation is vital to personal development.  It is a matter of self-discipline.
  3. List the key processes and systems that underlie your business.  For my coaching practice, there are processes like client acquisition, blogging, bill paying, teleclass delivery and forum moderation.
  4. Work on cleaning up and documenting one process at a time. You may want to choose the most high-impact system to document first.  Write down all the steps involved in clear, simple, step-by-step language.
  5. Automate as much as you can of the mechanical processes.  Outsource things you don’t need to do yourself.  Tools like autoresponder email systems can work great for this.  (Aweber.com is what I use for this newsletter and signups for all my classes)

If you haven’t started a business, it would be great to keep this framework in mind as you design your business model.

What jumped out at me so clearly as I read Carpenter’s book is that by rigorously cleaning up the systems that underpin my business, automating as much as I can and outsourcing any tasks that I don’t need to do personally, I will have much more time to focus on providing more services, contributing more free content (blog posts!) and serving more people.
And if you are not a business owner, not to worry — you can apply this systems thinking to your everyday life.
Some process improvement areas that spring to mind:
  • Email management (set up filters and rules for taming the email beast!)
  • Grocery shopping (I hand write my list every week, trying to remember the basics — how about if I created a pre-printed list that I could hang on the refrigerator?)
  • Laundry (I used to have four different laundry baskets in everyone’s rooms, then I switched to a central basket in the laundry room and it is much easier.  Talk about a task I would love to outsource!)
  • Remembering birthdays (this is one area I have been terrible at in the last few years since I relied on my memory instead of calendaring everyone’s birthdays.  Maybe next year I will remember to call my best friend on her birthday (January 14) for the first time in three years)
  • Rotating food in the refrigerator.  (We have gotten in the habit of cleaning out the refrigerator every Tuesday night, since the trash goes out on Wednesdays.  It really helps cut down on “mystery scientific experiments” growing in the back of the shelf.)

You can see your systems don’t have to be glamorous.  They just have to work well, and allow you to spend your time doing what you really want to do.

Other good resource books:
Beyond Booked Solid, Michael Port
The 4-Hour Workweek, Timothy Ferriss
Getting Things Done, David Allen
Upgrade Your Life, Gina Trapani
Connect:  A Guide to a New Way of Working, Anne Zelenka
Good blogs:
Matthew Cornell
December and January are going to be my systems scrubbing months, what about you?

25 Responses to “Time to get serious about strengthening your systems”

  1. […] Pamela Slim’s great review of Work the System (1st Ed.) for small biz folk at Escape from Cubicle […]

  2. […] of my business.  I am going to re-read Sam Carpenter’s book Work the System that inspired my blog post last year. (Visiting his site to get a link, I just saw there is a free download of his book until […]

  3. Hey Pam, this is a great read and I completely agree with you! The importance of systems is vital for sustainability. Btw, I’ve turned my website into a blog-site as some have requested I publish my writing. Again, thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Putting Systems to Work for You

    I recently read a great blog post that I wanted to share with you. It’s called Time to Get Serious About Strengthening Your Systems by Pamela Slim over at Escape from Cubical Nation. I encourage you to check it out…

  5. Greg Digneo says:

    Great Post! I am in the process of starting a venture and my main job is to build systems – though they are extremely primitive and require constant improvement. Even if you only have a blog, you should view it as laying the foundation for a successful marketing campaign. Document what type of posts get the most comments; and which tags get the most page views.

    Thanks for the great insight!

  6. Great story with very effective message. I agree with you processes are vital to any business especially if you are looking to grow your business on a large. Having processes and systems makes it easier to train new peopl quickly and effectively.
    I love to help people create great businesses so if you what some tips on how to make your business great go to http://www.yourbusinessbooster.com

  7. zImage says:

    I find it very helpful to evaluate a system after I’ve been away from it for a while. We can’t see the forest for the trees all too often.

    Another moment of revelation is when someone new joins the team and you have to explain to him/her how your systems work. That’s when you discover how many unsystematic and not-quite-logical “things” live in your organisation. Similarly to the irregularities in a language, which have to be learned by hard.

  8. Mike Stuart says:

    A customer of mine once told me that one particular person in her office new how everything runs in the office. When I asked her what would happen if the woman all of the sudden quit and never returned…what would happen to her business. She said…”I wouldn’t have a business without her.”
    I always encourage my clients to be “systems centric” and not “people centric”. People come and go in businesses, but your systems tend to stay fairly consistent.

  9. Wow, thanks for sharing your story, Pam. It reminds me of our fixer-upper here in New England when we first bought it – pans, chunks of plaster in our cereal, and mushrooms growing on the walls. In spite of this (or because of it?), those were good times.

    You make an important point re: having systems that serve your goals and purpose. An irony, though, is that sometimes we don’t know what those goals are until we’ve installed personal systems that give us mental space to evaluate what we want from our businesses and lives. As Jonah Lehrer puts it in “The Eureka Hunt” [1], insights are quiet and are drowned out by “having to do stuff.”

    The second irony is the old adage about being least likely to make changes *exactly* when we most need them. Spending money on improving personal systems can be a hard sell when times are tight. A good example is making health changes when we’re stressed.

    It’s good to listen to Rick’s advice about re-doing systems too often. Two possibilities are opportunistically (e.g., when they become a problem) or regularly (yearly, say).

    For me, analyzing systems to look for opportunities for improvement is a lot of fun, and working with crisper and more automated systems is really satisfying. It’s like riding your bike after a good tune-up; the machine really hums along, helping us to lose ourselves in the actual work. The tool serves us, in other words. I recently gave some examples [2] from different professions, which I think is relevant to the discussion here.

    And hey – thanks very much for the link. Much appreciated!


    P.S (Geeky side-note: For remembering birthdays I’ve found Plaxo to be really helpful. The Mac plugin integrates with iCal and gives me a seven day heads-up, which is usually enough to get a card or small gift together.)

    [1] The New Yorker, July 28, 2008, p. 40

    [2] Custom Workflows For Knowledge Workers

  10. Eric Klein says:

    Great post. Systems are essential. And, as you point out, they are based on purpose/mantra & principles.

    Without clarity on the “mantra” and the principles – we could be scrubbing and tweaking systems into efficiency heaven – but without a sense of what they are serving.

    Brings to mind the current challenge of scrubbing the financial systems. More than a chunk of plaster has fallen in. But, what is the “mantra” and what are the principles that will guide the clean up?

  11. Kathryn says:

    This is called Business Process Management/Reengineering; quantified and honed largely by Michael Hammer of Hammer and Company. http://www.hammerandco.com/

    It really is unfortunate that most companies seem to wait until the plaster falls to get serious here. Imagine how strong our economy would be if companies got serious about their processes before the roof started to leak…

  12. Dibyendu De says:

    Excellent blog. I liked it. All business people would love to implement systems thinking once they are aware of it. The problem is most business people don’t think it in that manner.

  13. Adam says:

    Thank you Pam. I’ll check it out. sorry I forgot to mention that I love your articles and your site. You’ve provided me some fantastic insight. Thank you again.

  14. Lisa Gates says:

    Pamela, this is music to my work-life balance soul. I have a client who refuses to use the words “planning” and “goal setting” and chooses to reframe all of it as “pathing.” Whatever we call it, it works. Great to find you again.

  15. Pamela Slim says:

    Hi Adam!

    Sam Carpenter actually explains systems in great deal in the book. He talks about it from a mechanical engineering perspective. It is too much for me to explain here, so you may want to get the book, or at least leaf through it at a bookstore that carries it! 🙂



  16. Adam says:

    Ok. For a while now I’ve read about systems. Marketing systems, systems for business, etc. What I haven’t discovered is what exactly do people consider systems? What is THE definition of a system? I’ve never been taught this. Can anyone answer?

  17. Pamela Slim says:

    @Marsha – glad to know I will have a fellow scrubber!

    @Jeff – so true about focus doing everything = doing nothing

    @communicatrix – good to know I am not the only one crazed by my slapped together systems! And, btw, since I was on your blog the other day I think I will hit up *YOUR* new service for brand consulting. Great stuff and I need it NOW!

    @rick – great point. You can work a process to death and lose precious time. It can be 90-95% and perfectly good.

    @Carla – it is definitely my goal in the short term too!

    @michael – I love the tool outline analogy. Great metaphor!

    @karen – All I know is I must get a handle on birthdays. My forgetting is really not cool.

    @conrad – I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get it, but I have gone from thinking systems are “fine but not really applicable to my stage of business” to “they are the secret to the universe.” 🙂

  18. Conrad Hees says:

    Great post Pamela, i really enjoyed it. Systems are so important now that nobody has any time anymore!

    I love the blog, keep up the great work!

  19. Karen says:

    For the birthday thing, what works most of the time for me is a reminder on the 25th of every month to look ahead and see what’s coming up. Then, the next month’s birthday SHOPPING / CARD BUYING / etc. dates go in my daytimer. I get most of them this way, except for my SIL whose BD is September 2 and sometimes falls into Labor Day weekend. Bad for mail.

  20. I think one of the most important things about improving productivity and making systems very robust to people is to make your controls and requirements ‘blatantly obvious’ to everyone.

    The easiest example is the classic tool board in the garage. The tools have an outline where they are supposed to go. So when one is missing, it is easy to tell.

    This mistake proofing method is called 5s.

    It is easy to do and can be constantly improved because mistakes in the system ‘show themselves’.

  21. Carla says:

    Great post. I definitely need to work on systems to make my work weeks run a little smoother. That is one of my next goal – actually that should be THE next goal!

  22. rick says:

    Excellent post. I’d only add… don’t continually redo your systems. review yes, but once you have a system defined and documented leave it alone for a while. Resist the urge to tweak just to tweak it just because you thought of something else. By all means, collect thoughts about it and if something’s badly off correct it… but if it’s close, leave it alone and go deal with another system.


    I just finished doing my Best Year Yet review and plan for 09, and my #1 priority this year is implementing systems that support my work. I’ve been half-assing it in so many areas for so long, I’m a nervous wreck most days.

    Thanks for the list of books; I’ve loved every one you’ve recommended so far, so I can’t wait to get my mitts on these!

  24. Great post on the value of “systems” or holistic thinking. For me, item #4 is the key: FOCUS.

    Paying attention to everything at once is a decision to not focus.


  25. Systems are the foundation of every success in business. Clear and simple are the guide words. Great post, Pam. And yes – I’ll be scrubbing December and January right along with you!