(Part 1 of 2 in a guest post series on setting up successful systems.)
Anthony Gatto is one of the greatest jugglers ever. He has over twelve world records to his name. Throw him four, five or six balls, and he’ll keep juggling away, no problem. Give him a seventh, and he’ll struggle to keep juggling for ten minutes. Throw an eighth ball into the mix, and he’ll barely last a full minute.
No matter how sublime a juggler’s skills, give him too much to handle and he’ll mess up. Push a juggler too far, and he’ll never be totally Russian — juggler slang for doing a dropless show.
As a boss or manager, you can’t do it all by micromanaging. You must clear your plate to keep growing. So you hire and delegate only to see tasks come back late, incomplete, or low-quality. When that happens, you’ve either got to redo it yourself or submit shoddy work to your clients. Doing either hurts. You wonder if everything would be better if you handled it all yourself, and then you’re back at not being able to juggle it all.
It’s Not a People Problem
If you focus on the hassle of working with a team, you miss the bigger, more complex people picture. According to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, 94% of all failure, troubles, and possibilities for improvement “belong to the system” — not individuals.
As the guy whose techniques resulted in the quality upsurge in Japanese manufacturing following WWII, Dr. Deming has a point. His systems for using statistics in quality control helped form the foundation for successful Japanese businesses like Sony and Toyota, both known for their high-quality products.
While Deming was talking about manufacturing rather than knowledge work, his colleague, Peter Scholtes explains our often misguided approach of assigning failure to people:
Conventional problem-solving would ask such questions as: Whose area is this? Who is supposed to replace worn gaskets? We don’t ask “why,” we ask “who.” We don’t look for causes in the system, we look for culprits in the work force.
Is management a big blame game? That kind of strategy will get you short-term results and a whole lot of frustration.
Shift Your Focus to the System, Away from Micromanaging
You’ll be better off if you focus on root causes within the system. Your business system is made up of processes and subprocesses — the steps you take to create value for your customers and revenue for the business. Different processes might include communication, marketing, sales, product delivery, finance, or staffing.
Here’s an example. When I’m starting a new client project, I have a process for bringing my new client on board. This is how it looks:
Collect Payment > Sign Contract > Book first session > Send thank you message > Send thank you to referrer > Intake form > First session
Every component of this process has its own subprocess. My Collect Payment subprocess is to take the first payment over the phone and then set up recurring payments with PayPal. For high-volume businesses, the Collect Payment subprocess could be a shopping cart on the website.
Following my system means every new client gets the same high level of service. I never forget to have a contract signed, I never forget to book a first session, and I never forget to thank referrers, who are the lifeblood of my business.
Look for Causes, Not Culprits
Stop blaming your team, stop micromanaging, and focus on improving your systems. It means you can hire staff to fit your system instead of relying on the miracle superstar to come along.
Don’t get me wrong. Having great people on your team is incredibly important. But equally important is setting them up for success so they can bring their very best to the company. Relying on talent alone is a huge risk. When Superstar Steve moves on and takes his fabulous results with him, that shouldn’t be a disaster.
Viewing your business as a system of processes moves the ball into your court. You set up the conditions and then empower others. With the right systems in place, your team knows what to do without you. They’ll become more like superstars when they’re carrying out successful systems.
You can stop spending your life picking up dropped balls. Instead, you’ll be getting better and better at juggling as a team.
So, how do you make this happen?
Build your juggling machine
For a simple start, pick a process and write out the steps as you go. This start does not have to be perfect. Next time you go through the process, follow the steps and tweak as necessary. Note what works and what doesn’t, adjust, and you’ll have what you need by iteration.
Store your process notes in a place that fits into your workflow. For example, I do my in-progress process notes in WorkFlowy. When they’re ready, I transfer them over to Google Docs. That way, they’re easy to access and share with team members.
As you move toward systems, your team may protest. You might hear these two common doubts:
Systems sound restrictive and robotic!
Your team might say they’d rather be creative or flexible than follow a proven process. As a creative person, I can relate — systems started out as a love-hate relationship for me. Yet as I’ve become more structured in my business, I get more accomplished in less time and help my clients achieve better results. Creativity thrives within constraints, putting problems and solutions into focus.
I’ve also found that once you show your team how systems benefit them, they’re quick to jump on board. Over time, they’ll come to love your systems, and you’ll find it easier to keep hold of your best staff.
What if everything you do is custom?
This is a very common objection I hear from service businesses, but on closer examination, it’s rarely true that everything is custom.
When you look at the steps you took for your most successful projects, you’ll see common threads. Account for some customization, but have your systems stand in for the bulk of the work — say 80%, with the creative magic coming from the custom 20%.
For example, I help many clients carve out more time to grow their business. When I started doing this, I was only confident enough to promise I’d find them 16 hours a month. Then I ran a beta test with entrepreneurs to fine-tune my process. Now I get even better results, faster, and can easily promise 20-40 hours month. While each client has a different situation, my proven system ensures that they get a greater result, and I can have someone else with baseline coaching skills run the process for me if needed.
Every project can become a dropless show when you build the right processes that focus on solving current problems and preventing future ones. I’ve seen businesses double or triple their revenue in a year by building out systems. In my next post, I’ll show you how to choose which processes to target to get the most impact and momentum.
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