Systems Set You Free

Kenny Chapman
Contributing Writer
The Blue Collar Coach

I was in Starbucks yesterday afternoon ordering an iced coffee when I heard the barista ask the lady taking my order, “How long has it been?” She promptly and quietly replied, “two minutes and seventeen seconds.” The barista quickly walked away and resumed what he was doing. I realized they were discussing the order time for a drive-thru customer, measuring the time it takes from order origination to fulfillment. This might appear to be an insignificant detail in the big picture, but not when you consider that Starbucks has over 17,000 stores and employs over 200,000 people. They have precise systems for every aspect of the business, which is what helps them deliver a consistent product in a prompt manner worldwide. If you’re wondering what a coffee company’s systems mean to us as contractors, they mean everything.

Starbucks develops and manages their systems in order to produce consistent, measurable results. We can all benefit from implementing similar strategies in our own businesses. I know this is “easier said than done,” however, the payoff is worth the effort.  Establishing effective policies in your business involves deliberate focus from you and your managers, but creates a positive shift in culture, operations, and mindset.

While my own company, Peterson Plumbing, isn’t perfect, we have developed a high level of systematic thinking among my leadership team. Systematic thinking is simply a way of looking at things from a comprehensive point of view. Essentially, my overall operation is composed of a series of smaller, specifically designed systems that contain solutions for dealing with any issue or “problem” that might arise.

Many contractors I’ve spoken with don’t feel as though they have the time, energy, or skills required to create systems to run their company. This is absolutely false. The only requirement is your ability to view things a little differently, embrace change, and implement strategically.  If you’re in business, you have the ability to create the necessary plans and procedures to move your company toward systemization. Many years ago, I attended The E-Myth Academy in Santa Rosa, California. Michael Gerber spoke about creating systems that run companies, then strategically positioning people to run those systems. When individuals understand exactly how they are expected to operate in their specific role, you eliminate assumptions and maintain consistency, whether they are a long-term employee or a new hire.

A system can be as simple as how your phone is answered or as complex as water heater installation procedures. I understand that systemization can seem like an overwhelming amount of work in the beginning, and this is exactly why most small businesses aren’t structured in this way. The leader feels that it’s easier to give a ‘quick fix’ answer to a problem than to create a measurable solution for the challenge.  In the long run, however, it’s much more efficient to have a strategy in place that others can refer to without consulting the leader directly. Many small businesses can’t operate successfully for more than a few days without the owner’s direct involvement. In your company, what would happen if you walked out the door today and didn’t return for a month? Would your people know what to do and how to do it? Where would they go to have their questions answered? How would they know if they were succeeding or not?

These are the questions that drove me to create systems in my own company. I don’t want to be the one with all the answers, but I do want the answers to exist. The next time a team member comes to you with a question that you’ve answered multiple times, simply ask them what they would do if you weren’t there. You’ll begin to realize your team would make good choices overall, even in your absence.  I’m not suggesting you walk away from your business tomorrow, but I am advocating that you begin to view your business as a system-oriented entity. If you had 20 locations, how would each location know what to do each day? How would a manager know what numbers to analyze, or what training concepts to focus on?

As the leaders of contracting companies, most of us “grew up” in the industry. Many of us started out as technicians, and evolved into company leaders. If we want to increase our leadership effectiveness, we must shift our “fix-it” technician mindset toward increasingly solution-based systematic thinking. As technicians, we were taught that we need to have all the answers. As business owners, managers, and leaders, we must strive to create systems that have the answers.

Keep in mind that I’m a very people-oriented leader and I believe in helping individuals grow within companies. I’m definitely not suggesting that we take any focus away from individuals. In fact, I believe that involving team members in the system creation process is a great idea. Then, as we train our people to grow, challenge, and improve the system, we all win. Most importantly, our clients win when they receive an outstanding service experience that meets or (hopefully) exceeds their expectations.

Creating an efficient, system-based company takes time. Focus on a specific task or element today, and always keep your long-term goal in mind. Sometimes you can only commit thirty minutes or an hour per day to “work on your business,” but that time adds up quickly over the period of a few weeks, months, or years. If you begin to consistently devote small intervals of time, you will eventually reach a point where the majority of your day is spent strategically improving your business. I’m pretty sure Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks, won’t make a single latte at a store today. However, he will be diligently working on the systems that help make that latte exactly what you want, each time you order it.


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