Streetwise: Are Outdated Systems Slowing You Down?

May 8, 2021

From our friends at Eure Consulting:

Many small businesses have issues developing the right systems and processes for their organization as they grow. Leaders need to understand that these systems and processes cannot remain stagnant as they grow. What worked for a company of 10 people will not still work for a company of 50. And what worked for a company of 50 will not work for a company of 100. Everything from how you communicate, to the phone system, to your CRM, to your profit design, to the way you write memos needs to get adjusted as the organization gets more complex.

Outdated systems can very easily slow down a company. Often companies aren’t good at identifying that the process is the problem. Most managers jump straight to the conclusion that it is a people issue. Let’s say, for instance, that your customers are complaining that they are not hearing back from Customer Service in a timely manner. You may assume that you need more Customer Service Representatives to handle the inquiry load. In reality, it may be that you have the right number of Reps, but the process they follow or the system they use may be slowing them down.

One way to avoid the trap of blaming people is to always start your problem solving with problem identification. Any easy framework that helps you identify the true cause of the problem is what we call the Three Gates of Focus.

The three gates are People, Process, and Profit.

When you’re problem solving simply take a moment to determine whether the issue stems from the people involved, the process you’re using, the availability of resources, or even the product itself.

As I mentioned above in our Customer Service example, it’s easy to assume that there is just too much volume for the current number of reps. Which would require hiring more staff. But it could also be a profit issue in that something has gone wrong with the product or service that you deliver. Leading to more customers calling than normal. Or it could be a process issue. Perhaps the CRM you are using isn’t updating and logging new complaints in a timely manner.

Just assuming that it is one of the three without really digging deeper to understand can cause you even bigger issues down the road. Which is one of the reasons that the People, Process, or Profit framework is so valuable.

It forces you to stop and dig into the problem until you find the true root cause. Most managers are so eager to solve a problem that they tend to jump right in without really analyzing the situation. This leads them to deal only with superficial symptoms of the problem and not the true root cause. They’ve used a band-aid to cover up a splinter. If you don’t get the splinter out, it will fester and get infected.

The framework also helps you match your solution to the problem. People problems require very different responses than process problems do. And profit problems require another approach as well. Knowing which type of problem you’re dealing with will help guide your actions as you move to solve it. You’ll be able to respond with the appropriate steps for each of the three different types of issues.

Once you’ve identified that it is in fact a process problem, you need fix it.

Solving systems and process problems often requires more of a lift than most managers expect. This is due to the resistance that many employees put up against the changes. When someone has done something a certain way for years, they are often reluctant to try something new. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Except, in this case, it is broke and you need to help them understand that.

Because even if you can see that a process has broken, your employees might not be able to. They may be just as happy continuing to do things the way they always have without realizing the effects of using an outdated process.

In our Customer Service Rep example, your employees may feel busier than ever. But they probably won’t attribute that added work to a system that is slowing them down. They’ll just think there’s been an uptick in sales leading to more customers calling in.

If your employees aren’t seeing all of the issues that you are you have two options. You can tell them it’s broken and how they should fix it. Or, you can teach them to think critically about their work and the processes they use and let them figure out that what’s broken and needs fixing.

Mine your employees for areas for improvement.

The second option provides an easy way to help get your employees engaged. They will feel a great sense of purpose and value by helping to continually improve the company. Give them the tools, like the Three Gates of Focus framework, and training they need to be able to help identify problems and areas for improvement.

You can collect feedback on these ideas as often as you feel is necessary. It may be a formal once-a-year process or a rolling suggestion box type of deal. Whatever works for your company. Just make sure you’re asking for their feedback. And listening to them! They are the ones on the frontlines. They see the day-to-day activity and are much better equipped to realize when shifts in the workflow are happening or when processes need to change.

That is if they have the right mindset about it. This is why you need to teach them how to identify a process that has grown old. And to build a culture of continual improvement so that they know that you welcome questioning systems and processes in the name of efficiency. Once you’ve done that, your employees will be able to keep your company constantly moving forward and improving.

As a company grows in size and employee count, it also grows in complexity.

If you haven’t taken the time to improve and grow your systems along the way, your company will struggle even more than it did with fewer employees. You have to build the infrastructure to handle the increased number of employees and complexity, and that only comes when the right systems and processes are in place.

A great first step to start implementing the right systems is to start with that employee feedback I just mentioned. Simply ask your employees what is working and what isn’t. Challenge everyone in the company to find at least one process that is slowing down their work. The people that are working with these systems every day are well aware of their flaws, you just have to make sure they’re comfortable sharing their thoughts with you.