business systems
Shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed out in a demanding office environment

By Yeremi Bolton Akpan

For most persons, the notion of owning their business hinges on the romantic. They have this idea that they have been nursing for ages, and at a point, the frustration of working at a job overwhelms them, and they say, ‘that’s it! I am starting my own business!’.

The usual thinking is that when they become owners of their business, they now get to set the rules! They will only take on the kind of clients that they love, work sane hours, with staff that they get along with (no longer enduring the manic cubicle space with the colleague that goes from one act of passive aggression to the next). And their bank balances – that would be the best part. They shiver in excitement as they dream of the thrill of all the beautiful commas and zeros.

Sadly, when they make this move, most find that they only exchanged one job for another, as running a business is even more demanding than working at a job. For a start, they talk with pride about how busy they are (at least they are building their own thing) and how the whole operation would collapse if they dared to take a day off.

But the question remains, how can entrepreneurs venture into business without losing their personal lives and sanity in the process?

The key to achieving that is implementing systems at your business that can improve predictability and accountability. Otherwise, you will always be running helter-skelter in a constant reactive state – putting out one fire after the other.

Look at the big businesses around you? How many of them would collapse if their owners took a day off? You got it right – none.

So, in structuring your business from the very beginning, ask yourself – am I creating another job, or genuinely creating a business? If you want to create a new job, that is fine. However, if you are building a business, you need system thinking from the word go!

While big businesses depend on systems to scale their operations, it might be tougher to persuade small business owners on the need to add a layer of systemization on their activities. One reason for this is that building systems is hard work – and in the short term, it will distract from the core operations that the business is engaged in. Additionally, they may not see the immediate benefit of having such systems in place.

While these reservations may be understandable, this does not detract from the enormous long-term benefits of making that sacrifice, especially for small businesses who should be thinking about scale and growth. Instead of shelving business systems implementation plans because of the level of work needed to put the systems in place, you can instead get a business coach to guide you through the implementation, or even outsource the implementation process entirely to a third-party consultant.

The benefit here is that such coaches may have implemented systems for similar businesses, and they can help you save valuable time and set up an optimal system structure for your industry.

The need for business systems

Picture for a moment that you get ill all of a sudden, or get hit by a bus, or fall down the stairs – can your business suffer just a mild hiccup and move on in your absence? If it can, it is likely that you have put systems in place, and people at your business know what these systems are and how to use them.

But, if you take pride in how indispensable you are and how everything will fall apart if you stepped out of the mix, in any of those scenarios, you will likely find out just how indispensable you are.

So, some benefits of documenting systems and processes in your business include optimizing existing processes, training new employees, preserving institutional knowledge, and ensuring operational consistency.

The question now is, what are systems?

The word ‘system’ evokes the image of a machine with multiple moving parts all coming together to accomplish a task. Relatedly, in business, systems are optimal methods of accomplishing a business process that is done more than once.

You see, running a business is hard enough. Being a living encyclopedia on how everything in the business is done makes it a whole lot harder. You don’t need that pressure.

With systems, you can trace each desirable business outcome that you produce for both your internal and external audiences, and trace the processes needed to deliver each outcome from start to finish. The goal here is that someone in your business with a somewhat average understanding of what you do can pick up one of those process documents and deliver the same result without having to seek external help.

To illustrate this, imagine you walk into a KFC restaurant and ask for a Crispy wing in Lagos. Have you noticed how similar the same product is if you were to eat it at, say, Johannesburg? A KFC Crispy Wing is a KFC Crispy Wing, no matter where you eat it. Why is that the case?

Business systems.

Someone at KFC took the time to break down how to prepare KFC crispy Wing from start to finish, including the ingredients needed, the brands of those ingredients needed to produce a consistent taste and so on.

That is why a branch of KFC could open up, and people can walk in with a certain expectation and have it met.

Without systems, one chef would have to physically move from store to store to prepare that meal, since he is the one who knows how this is done. Does this demonstrate the value of systems in your business and how that affects how nimble and scalable your business is? It should.

The goal here is to create a modular business where parts are exchangeable and replaceable. Let’s think of a machine in the first place. If a machine has a faulty part, the part is simply replaced, and the engine kicks back into gear and runs again as new. In a similar vein, a systemic approach to business would mean that you are completely out of the equation, with no valuable organizational knowledge residing solely in your head.

What that means is that, were you to be somewhat incapacitated, someone else who is suitably qualified could step into your place, and pick-off from where you left off, without necessarily needing you to hold him or her by the hand to walk through things.

If something is done more than once, document the process

All repeatable tasks in your organization ought to be documented. The benefit of this is that it adds a strong layer of predictability to your business. A client can be onboarded today, and everyone in your business knows exactly how the engagement will flow based on how your system runs.

For big businesses, this kind of documentation is a core part of getting the job done. However, for a one-person business or small teams where everyone knows everyone and what they are working on, it is easy to fall into the trap of forgetting to document.

Keep in mind that when we talk about business systems, it is not just a case of creating a record to assist your memory. It is a case of creating a record of how the job is done so that you can even step out of the equation without hurting the process. So, before you take on that task that has become so second nature and predictable to you because of the routine, take some time out and lay out a process of how you do it as you go along. This becomes an asset that is used repeatedly by your business, creating scalability and redundancy for your team.

That is how businesses grow.                                      

So, it is up to you to decide if you want to build a big business that delivers predictable results, or if you want a business that revolves around you as the boss.

You can’t get both. Choose wisely.