Every process or workflow in any kind of business can be improved by the use of well-developed systems.
And so whenever you see chaos, disorder and mismanagement you can safely assume that a poor system is being used (or an unconscious “system” is being used and hasn’t been refined by applying thoughtfulness).
The little-known truth is this: EVERYTHING is a system!
Any kind of change that happens in the world happens because of some systematic process. A pool ball ricochets in a predictable way because of the laws of physics, which are basically a “system” embedded into the natural world.
Perhaps that seems a little lofty and philosophical, but it helps to open your mind if you want to truly leverage the power of systems in areas of your life including the running of your law firm.
If you want examples of systems that pervade our world, here’s an incomplete list.
- Operations Manuals: Every franchise company creates operations manuals because they need to have absolute consistency across all stores so that customers know they’ll have the same experience no matter which store they go to.
- Formulas are systems for getting a predictable result, and scientists use formulas all the time. In fact, the very basis of Science is that it’s a rigorous system for discerning the truth in a way that overcomes our brains’ natural cognitive glitches, which routinely lead us to make misjudgments of all kinds. And having made the same misjudgment time and time again, we become resistant to looking at a situation in a fresh light unless we use a system like the scientific method to override our mental habits.
- Checklists are systems for reminding us to follow an important series of steps. Our memories are unreliable, and so is our attention (especially to pesky details). And that’s why Pilots, Surgeons and all kinds of other high-performing folks use checklists.
- Recipes are basically checklists too. Setting Up in a routine way is a system. Chefs in every restaurant use a system called “mise en place” to set up their workspaces so that they can find what they need quickly and easily without making mistakes.
- Batch processing is a system for doing similar tasks together. The assembly line that was put in place by Henry Ford was essentially a system for batch processing tasks related to building an automobile. Because of the efficiency of his method, he was able to lower the cost of his cars dramatically and yet still ensure the highest quality. In fact, the quality was better than the old way of building cars one at a time because the old way produced less consistent results.
- Habits: every habit is essentially an unconscious system for doing the same task in the same way. Speaking of which, our habit is to not even notice systems, and if we notice them it’s hard for us to create a new habit of defining them and documenting them.
In short, systems are powerful and useful because they:
- Create order (i.e. eliminate or minimize chaos & confusion)
- Allow you to get consistent outcomes repeatedly, and predictably
- Allow you to avoid or eliminate silly mistakes (see #1 above)
- Create consistency across your entire firm (because everyone uses the same process)
- Create improved performance, especially from less skilled staff members
- Make it easier to train and onboard new staff members
- Set powerful expectations for new employees that foster buy-in and cooperation
Unfortunately, the main impediment to creating systems and refining them our flawed human nature which keeps us from noticing systems and the power that they can bring to our lives if we take the time to develop them.
A System for Documenting Systems
Here’s a simple process for documenting systems so you can use them, and refine them.
- Notice a process that you want to streamline or make more reliable. It doesn’t have to be a process that is often repeated, but those are the ones you should strive to notice first.
- Write down your quick notes on what the steps in the process are (as best you can remember it, or envision it if you’re coming up with a system you’ve never used before). Do this with a legal pad and pen. Don’t use digital tools because it will impede the free flow of your brainstorming.
- Look at the list every day for a couple of days, and refine it. Trust me, you’ll come up with new ideas if you come back to your initial list a day or two later.
- The final step (for your paper notes): Once you’ve reviewed the list a few separate times and found you’ve emptied your unconscious brain of all its useful ideas for that system, transfer the checklist to a digital document. What software should you transfer it to? I would say it’s whatever program you and your staff are most familiar with and use daily. Ideally, everyone should be able to access it via the cloud.
One of the overlooked benefits of documenting your systems into a formal document that you can share with others in your firm is this: it is a powerful way to set expectations of how things should be done.
You can harangue people all day long and not persuade them to follow your edicts, commands, and proclamations (good old Human Nature is always a friction point).
But if you plop an operations manual with well-developed systems on their desk it sends a signal that goes straight into their subconscious. The message is this: I spent valuable time creating this well-thought-out process manual for you to use so you can do your job. So obviously I have super high expectations that you’re going to comply.
If they don’t comply, they won’t be able to claim that you didn’t explain how things should be done. Trust me, this aspect of documenting your systems into a formal document is not to be minimized.
And here’s one little-noticed more benefit: having documented your systems will make you more confident when YOU are doing things. Having even a simple checklist of key aspects of any work you do will help you eliminate any silly mistakes or lapses of attention.
And when other people in your office see that you too use systems in your practice that will further reinforce your commitment.
Even though you’ll likely never hear anyone in your office compliment your use of systems, you can be sure they’ll quietly respect you tremendously.
People are drawn to a strong leader who is decisive and knows how to act.
Using systems is the hallmark of great leaders and it’s the tool that really smart people use to outperform their peers.