Systems: Why They Are Such A Big Deal

Systems: Why They Are Such A Big Deal

A good system is like a good friend – it can help you take a load off.

It’s not just about automation, though of course that’s pretty cool too.

Systems are about more than that and they can be pretty powerful – even very, very simple ones.

We are also uniquely placed as human beings to benefit from creating and using good systems because systematizing things to make them easier for ourselves (forming habits) is what we do naturally as human beings.

Before I explain why I love systems so much and why I recommend using them wherever possible, let’s first take a look at what happens when you don’t have a system.

What Happens When You Have No System

When you have no system you have to spend time and energy figuring it out.

Whatever it is, you have to spend some time thinking about it.

Some mental energy working out what you need to do.

Because you don’t have a systematic way to go about it.

You’ve got no system.

It could be that the first time you’re figuring it out you’re actually creating a system, one that you can re-use so that it won’t be so tricky the next time round.

Whatever it is.

You may even be documenting things as you go along. Perhaps writing and re-writing notes as you explore various options, try things out, make mistakes and eventually find the right path.

For the moment, without a pre-determined system, you need to think about it – you need to work it out.

This requires effort.

Maybe it’s something simple and you get it right away.

Even still, it requires some thought and effort.

Because you don’t have a system in place to tell you what you need to do.

It may not even be the first time you have done this thing (whatever it is), but you don’t remember what you did the last time so you have to figure it out all over again, because you don’t have a system.

What This Means In Practical Terms

If you’re in business and you’re doing something that you’re not likely to remember, encode it somewhere. Either record it (using software, a video camera or whatever is most appropriate to your line of business) or make notes of what you have done so that you can repeat the process in the future if need be.

I’m guilty of course of not doing this as I found out recently when I updated some of the plug-ins on this website.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term ‘plug-in’, these are essentially third-party programs or functions you can use in your website – code that is written by someone else which you can use but which also needs to be updated from time-to-time.

Usually such updates go without a hitch, but this time I updated a bunch of plug-ins and the website crashed.

I managed to recover the website but found that the plugin in question which I use to create forms on my website had reset itself losing all of the customized forms I had created for various sections of our site.

If you take a look at any of the forms in the consulting or training sections of the site around the time of this article being published, I’m guessing that you’ll see that the forms in there look pretty poor – that’s because I need to get around to re-customizing them for each page (of course if they all look really great, I’ve already done that ;-)).

So when this happened I wished that I’d documented the process I went through to customize these forms.

Then it would take me no time at all to repeat the process.

As it is, I have to figure it out all over again.

Systems Can Help When We’re Not Feeling Creative

In any business there are tasks that need to be done that are just mundane and boring, or simply vast and therefore a lot of hard work.

Having a system in place to get through such tasks can help in one of 2 ways:

  1. Having a good repeatable system means the task can be automated, delegated or outsourced far easier
  2. Having a good repeatable system in place means that you can carry out the task fairly easily and worry-free when you don’t feel up to doing something more creative

Recently I needed to mail a large number of my contacts and because I wanted the mails to be personal and contain the individual names of each contact, plus, depending upon the contact contain a customized message, I began mailing my contacts one by one. With thousands of contacts, this is quite a laborious, boring and error-prone process.

However, I have two systems which help me – the first being a spreadsheet that I use to track where I am up to in this one-by-one mailing process, and the second being an automated process to carry out the actual mailings. As there is a core part of the message that is repeatable, I can re-use the formating, the core message and all the mechanisms involved in sending the message, including logging it and any response in my spreadsheet – so I only need to change the name and the customised part of the message each time.

This is still quite a labor-intensive task and without a system in place to carry it out, I certainly wouldn’t be doing it, however, with the system in place it has become a task that I’m happy to make progress with when I’m not feeling creative yet want to progress something in my business. As it is obvious from the messages that I have mailed people individually, a lot of the people I have mailed have commented on this fact and I’ve had some interactions I no doubt would never have had from a completely automated solution (whilst still having a system in place to help me with the task).

Of course there are plenty of other tasks which fall into this category, this is just one example and a very current one at that.

It’s What We Do Best

Human beings are the worlds greatest experts at creating systems and making shortcuts. We form habits and have an in-built auto-pilot system that allows us to minimise the thought and energy needed once we think we have understood something. Even very complex processes. If you’re a driver, think back to the first time you learned to drive a car, and how automatic all of the processes involved are now.

This means that if you do something enough you will most likely create a kind of system for it all on your own without documenting or recording anything, but you can shortcut and influence this short-cutting process even further by creating a system in a more deliberate way. Do this early on and you will prevent yourself from inadvertently introducing errors in the habit-forming process.

The Obvious Solution Isn’t Always The Best

The Egyptians wouldn’t have gotten very far building the pyramids if they’d simply tried to lift the stone into place with brute strength.

Instead, they devised systems based on their understanding of physics and mathematics to provide them the leverage they needed to move these incredibly heavy objects using things like pulleys, rollers and pivots.

I love this kind of thing and often think of the Egyptians when it comes to trying to move heavy objects myself – there are few things more satisfying than cracking a seemingly insurmountable problem with a well designed system to take care of it.

Of course once the principles of such a system have been tested and proven once, they can be used time and time again.

The point here is that the obvious solution isn’t always the best – when this is the case, the eventual system that is used and proven to work better than the obvious solution, however simple that system is, serves as a very useful record of the best solution so far out there.

For example, the 5 Memory Systems that Isabelle shared in the previous article are probably just about the best ways we know how to improve our memory, but before these were devised and documented, we just didn’t know, did we?

Once A System Is There, It Can Be Refined

Of course the other beauty of systems is that once they are created they can be improved upon.

If we had no systems whatsoever, and we were just working things out each time, we are then far less likely to improve upon our efforts, relying on experience and memory to do so.

When we create systems we are building something tangible which can be improved upon

When we create systems we are building something tangible which can be improved upon – even the tiniest of things, both in life and in business – the minute it is captured as a system, that is when things start to get better quicker.

A Quick Word On Automation

Automation is very powerful and more accessible than ever these days. Here are some quick examples:

  • Robots replacing humans in car manufacturing: this speeds up the manufacturing process, saves cost, reduces injuries in the workplace, provides a system that can be refined and improved as mentioned above and frees the human resources to focus on other tasks (e.g. less repeatable tasks where we wouldn’t want robots to replace humans)
  • Programmers writing scripts to perform repetitive tasks in operating systems: I was hardly what you’d call a programmer at the time but in the early years of my career I took a long list of commands which a colleague had on paper and was diligently typing in every day and wrote them into a script which was saved as her name (Rosy). This automated that list of commands so that each day rather than copying them all out one by one from the paper (which was very time consuming and prone to error) my colleague just had to type in ‘rosy’.
  • Automated testing can be extremely useful when dealing with complex software systems. As systems get more and more complex, testing becomes more and more arduous and time consuming both in terms of design time and running time for the tests. Automated testing systems mean that designers and coders can make changes to systems many times and simpy re-run the system through pre-determined automated test cases saving a lot of time and also providing a more stable like-for-like comparison for test results.
  • Recording Macros: Lots of computers and computer programs have macros where the user can record a series of operations so that that particular sequence of operations can be performed in an automated fashion by pressing a single ‘Play’ button and running that macro instead of carrying out each individual action in sequence each time. Though Microsoft Excel is less dominant in the spreadsheet market, one of it’s greatest advantages was this capability and then the facility to look at the code and edit it to make the resulting ‘system‘ more refined.

There are plenty of examples all around us on a day to day basis, machines replacing human ticket attendants in car parks, cars replacing the horse and cart, self-service machines in your local supermarket and more personal systems you might have such as the song you sing to remember how many days there are in each month of the year.

Quick Tip: If you have a series of things you carry out via internet applications or want to create systems for some of the admin tasks which you carry out in your business using internet based applications, take a look at IFTTT

…and That’s Why You Gotta Love Systems

As I said (wrote) a good system is like a good friend.

I just can’t get enough of them.

When I create, employ, dream up or observe a good system I get really enthusiastic about it.

… and I make systems for just about anything from making sure I have enough tea to managing my emails.

Often, little conveniences impress me more than anything – when someone has created a system where you wouldn’t expect one.

It’s not just about automating things (though of course having good systems in place means we can), it’s something we do naturally and for good reason – having systems frees us to spend our mental energy on other things.

On the subject of interesting, here is an interesting system that the Japanese came up with to solve their space problem:


Systems: Why They Are Such A Big Deal — 1 Comment

  1. Hey Alan,

    Systems can be powerful, and they can help us to save a lot of effort and time. I love experimenting with systems, redefining my existing systems, tweaking the little things to find whether it works more efficiently (and that has helped me to improve my productivity and get things done faster).

    As for automation, I am not a big fan (especially when it comes to things like Social media. Sure, I do love semi-automation, but somethings are better off when done by humans). Automation in real life can also cause for people to lose their jobs (who would like that?). But, they can also save a lot of lives 🙂

    Anyways, thank you for sharing your insights, Alan 🙂 Hope you are enjoying your weekend!

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