By Pam Slim
Bio Pam is a coach and writer who helps frustrated employees in corporate jobs break out and start their own business. She has been self-employed for 12 years and has enjoyed every bit of it.
Her first book "Escape from Cubicle Nation, will be due from Penguin/Portfolio in Spring, 2009" and Pam writes for Martha Beck's blog on a bi-monthly basis.
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:
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."
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.
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.
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.
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