What is Business Systemization?
There are business policies and procedures in every business–even Small and Medium size Businesses (SMB). There’s a process on how to answer the telephone, pay employees, and deliver services to clients. In most businesses, there are many, many processes. Some like answering the phone are simple, others like delivering services to clients are complex with multiple internal processes. All these processes are actually systems. Each system has some kind of
- Input (e.g., a phone ringing)
- Activity with a sequence of steps (e.g., answering the phone, talking to the caller, responding to the caller’s needs, etc.)
- Output (e.g., a satisfied caller)
The act of getting business systems written down is called systemization or systematization. No matter how it’s spelled, its purpose is to clearly explain the system with enough detail to enable it to be consistently carried out.
Why Should Business Owners Systemize?
The first systems SMB companies will usually document are employee policies and procedures. Some companies will write marketing policies and procedures as a way to control their brand presentation. Relatively few companies, however, will invest resources in systemizing their business operations by creating an online or printed business operations manual or policy and procedure library.
Those companies that do invest in getting—and using—written business policies and procedures begin to experience these competitive advantages:
- Less time training employees because trainees and instructors have a consistent reference guide on how to do the work and can refer back to that guide for review
- Increased consistency in work output because everyone doing the same job is following the same instructions
- Increased effectiveness and efficiency since there is a standard process to work from
- Increase employee engagement because they have greater clarity on what is expected of them, and how they should do their work.
- Business can be replicated or franchised
If the benefits of systemization are so great for SMB, why don’t business owners systemize their business—especially when confronted with situations that should trigger them to systemize (see Five Situations that Mean You Need to Document Your Business Systems)?
Objections Preventing Systemization and How to Overcome Them
Staff at all levels within a company often have many objections to writing business policies and procedures. Below are the most common justifications for business owners, managers, and employees to not support—and even thwart—efforts to get written business policies and procedures. Following each objection are tips you might find helpful in overcoming the resistance.
Don’t Have Time or Resources to Write a Procedure
This is one of the biggest obstacles to systemization, and it often appears in businesses that would benefit the most by systemization. The problem is that systemization takes time and effort immediately, but its benefits appear later. If owners, managers, and workers keep postponing efforts until they have more time and resources, they’ll discover there are always other demands on those resources.
Tips: To systemize a business, SMB owners have to prioritize systemization over other demands. The best way of doing that is to imagine what effects using business policy and procedure documentation would bring to your business and decide how valuable those effects would be. Compare that value to other activities’ values and devote time and resources to the activities with the best probable return.
Unless the benefits of having business procedures and policies are visualized, most owners and staff quickly lose their enthusiasm and focus on reacting to problems caused by not systemizing the business.
Think Business Is Too Small to Systemize
Many SMB owners think systemization only benefits larger companies. These owners believe they can directly manage their staff and don’t need to devote resources toward something with limited perceived value. These owners often don’t recognize how much they rely on staff who’ve already created work policies and procedures internally to guide them. When a key person is absent, productivity and quality can plummet until the person returns or remaining people create replacement systems.
Tips: Make the time to visualize what each person in your company does and the likely effects of that person being absent for an extended period. For those people who would not be easily replaced, reprioritize some of their time and make writing a procedure one of their weekly or bi-weekly responsibilities and check to ensure it’s being done satisfactorily.
Over time they will build up a set of policies and procedures on how to fulfill their job duties. If the person doesn’t have technical writing skills, pair the person with a staff person who does, or hire a freelance technical writer to write the policies and procedures based on input from the person.
Afraid of Job Loss
This fear is one of the most common reasons for employees at all levels to resist transferring the business policies and procedures held in their memories to paper. Once those policies and procedures are written, employees fear they will be replaced by a new hire with either lower salary requirements, higher capability, or both.
The fear many employees have of being held accountable to written policies and procedures is a part of the fear of job loss.
Tips: The best way to reduce this fear is for management to reassure employees that the purpose of systemizing the business is to expand the capacity of the business rather than reduce head count. The goal should be to increase capacity with the same number of employees rather than maintain existing output with fewer employees. Increasing capacity is a foundational step for business growth.
This is where business owners and top management need to share their vision of where the company is going and position writing work policies and procedures as a key strategy toward enabling that vision.
For employees who fear accountability, systemization offers a chance for management to relieve employee anxiety about what is expected of them and whether they’re performing adequately. Having staff take part in writing the policies and procedures is a good way to alleviate this fear.
Don’t Want to Change
Systemization often requires changing how one or more employees do their work as they conform to a new set of expectations and work methods. That change is threatening to employees who have gotten comfortable with how they do their work. They’re afraid systemization will mean breaking existing habits and require learning new ways to do their work activities. Some may believe they are old dogs who can’t learn new tricks.
Tips: Here business owners need to acknowledge that employees will have to endure some change, but again position the change as something necessary to reach goals.
This obstacle is another reason to enroll employees in systemization efforts. Employees often know how to do their work better than their supervisors. Once a procedure is written, have other employees who do the same work review the procedure and test it out to see where improvements can be made to the procedure.
Emphasize the team approach to all employees and point out that improvements to policies and procedures will benefit all by expanding their skills and provide the benefits listed at the beginning of this article.
Believe Work Is Too Complex to Document
Many employees believe their jobs require them to base their actions solely on past training and experience. They think there are too many variables involved to create a workable system. In some cases they are right—to a point. Some activities do require advanced training and experience, but within every business system, there are some activities which would benefit from documented policies and procedures.
Tips: Point out that while advanced hospital surgeries require years of training and experience; disinfecting hands, surgical instruments, and incisions sites can be easily documented.
When documenting a complex system, break the system into discrete sub-activities and document the activities that don’t require elaborate decision trees. When documenting business processes, always keep in mind the primary audience of the process—the employees who are expected to follow the instructions. Assume staff has the necessary qualifications to be hired for their positions and create the policies and procedures that govern how each job is done at your company.
Don’t Believe Systemization Is Effective
Many experienced employees have seen owners and managers try to systemize and concluded systemization doesn’t work. Systemization efforts often fail because of the reasons above. The problem isn’t systemization; the problem is how the systemization was implemented.
The problem appears in two forms: systemization efforts were started, but never completed and systemization efforts were completed, but the output (often a business operations manual contained within a thick, three-ring binder) became out of date.
Tips: For systemization efforts to work, everyone involved in the efforts from top management on down must support the initial efforts and make a paradigm shift in how they think about business systems and the underlying policies and procedures.
One way to get staff buy-in is to start with the system causing the most confusion or monetary cost to the business and do the following:
- Position this system as a pilot case for the whole systemization effort and responsibility for creating the system’s policies and procedures to an individual or team.
- Remind yourself and your staff of the expected benefits and allocate time and other necessary resources to ensure the work is started. Even an hour a week is enough to make steady progress.
- Periodically review progress and hold people accountable for completing the systemization work.prioritize the work high enough to ensure progress is steadily made.
- When the documentation has been drafted, share the policies and procedures with everyone in the staff who has a role in the system and seek improvements to encourage employee enrollment.
- Once the system is being followed compare its results against a baseline taken before the system was documented or with the efforts of others who are not following the system.
- If those following the written system don’t outperform the others, analyze what is causing the difference and update the written system. Repeat this step until the written system consistently beats or matches expectations.
- Select another business system and systemize it.
Systemization is itself a system and requires its own policies and procedures to ensure it’s consistently replicated throughout a company. One policy should be to periodically compare the written policies and procedures against current practice and update as appropriate. Another policy is to hold people accountable for following each system’s policies and procedures.
These policies are critical. If not implemented, the resources invested in the systemization effort will be wasted; the policy and procedure documentation will lose its effectiveness and become out-of-date.
As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.
For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.If you care, share.