My clients have been expressing some envy in recent days on conference calls and coaching calls knowing that, in the midst of a heatwave, I have been working from home. I am indeed glad to be able to dress casually – no suit, no make-up – in my home office.
It’s also true that, for the solopreneur, life away from work can be an extension of life at work. In the last few days I have been thinking – as a client, as a woman with a hobby (more about that later), as the manager of a home, as a service provider – about systems.
When your work descends into chaos
Have you ever found yourself – whether at work or at home – overwhelmed?
It could be that you have more e-mail correspondence than you know how to handle. Or you have an overwhelming amount of physical material – from stock to stationery, from filing to furniture – to organise.
Maybe the number of tasks that are piling up, waiting to be done later is slowly growing. You know that “done later” increasingly means “won’t get done at all”. It wouldn’t be so bad if it also meant, “will be filed, shredded, put in a place where they belong” rather than “will create clutter, chaos, confusion”.
It’s not just that you, or your team, or even your organisation, is not getting certain things done. It’s not only that there are consequences for your business (unhappy clients, for example, or unpaid bills).
No. In addition, your failure to address a growing problem begins the process of institutionalising an inefficiency, a failure of service, or some other problem for the longer term. Over time, it also creates a built-in failure of thinking, innovation, problem solving as thinking descends into a fog as a result of the mess you’re in.
Ahem… I know
It may surprise you to know that the sink in my garden is at the heart of several systems in my life and not all to do with gardening.
In the last eighteen months, for example, I have taken up a bit of a hobby – buying and selling china, ceramics, pottery… items of beauty. On eBay, I go under the name of arabesque1963 and, increasingly, I recognise that this gentle pastime – the occasional visit to Greenwich Auction House, mooching round the market at Lee Green, letting go of items that no longer please me in my home and replacing them with things that do – is (albeit on a small scale) a fully fledged business and presents the same challenges as any other business.
Now, I don’t want to turn this posting into a rave review of eBay, though I do have reason to be grateful for the work that has gone into supporting me as both buyer and seller at their end. Only recently, for example, I received a parcel as a buyer in which three out of four items were broken. The person who sold them to me was kind enough to refund the money I had spent but many aspects of their communication were wholly unsatisfactory, including the feedback they left on my profile. I contacted eBay who took the view that yes, this was in breach of their trust and safety policies and removed it.
As a seller on eBay I have been evolving systems. I have standard terms and conditions, for example, which I use to create each listing I make of new items for sale. I am making a practice of including a rather beautiful mouse when I take photos of items for sale – this creates an identity for my eBay brand and attracts attention and comment. (No, the mouse is not for sale). I have a few places where I take these photos, including the garden sink. I always include a thank you note which is often the subject of comment when buyers leave feedback.
Frankly, even after twelve years at the helm of Learning for Life Consulting, I have to say there’s no better education that I can think of in the art and science of business. I know, for example, that I can make more profit when I buy large lots rather than individual items or that I can make better use of my time if I group items together to create an offering worth a certain amount of money. I know, too, that if I were doing this to make a living I would need to think much less about my love of a good mooch and much more about income targets, how best to meet them and how best to maximise profit whilst minimising my investment of time. (I’m guessing that I hardly need to point out that wrapping breakable items takes care and time).
Systems alert! It’s easy to mistake a systems error for a failure by your team
My experience of eBay has reminded me of times in my business when things start to go wrong.
Right now, for example, I am grappling with a particular challenge – where to store items which have yet to be sold. The truth is, I am buying more quickly than I am selling. Where can I create enough space to store my stock so it’s not in the way?
In the meantime, well… it is in the way.
I remember a similar stage in running Learning for Life Consulting when I didn’t know where to find paperwork and client files, because I hadn’t yet created a storage system that worked. And when I had created a storage system that worked, I still needed to use it – to put existing files in their rightful place, to keep them up to date, to create a new file for each new client.
It took me a while to clock something that businesses face every day – the risk of blaming staff for your failure to create a system, because what you see is the unhelpful behaviour rather than the absence of a system. Worst still, it may be your clients, rather than you, who are complaining about the unhelpful behaviour of your staff. Organisations are particularly vulnerable at times of change or growth or even when they face a problem and lack a system to deal promptly and effectively with client complaints.
Recently, I experienced this from the client end. I was dealing with an organisation that provides services I have been used to buying over the years and I wasn’t happy. The organisation was offering an attractive package… but failing to deliver. I had to remind them of the promises they’d made me. I asked about one small thing and was greeted with, well “what’s it got to do with me?” I wasn’t impressed. It was enough to make me reflect on the standards I expected and to realise that, well, this small organisation is still muddling through at a time when they need to set clear standards and work out how they will deliver against those standards… every time.
It especially highlighted to me that they are trying to compete with some of the “big boys” in their industry but haven’t yet worked out what made those boys “big”.
What systems are you lacking in your organisation?
I am still working on a system that works for my eBay hobby and realising that, in the eyes of anyone who buys from me, it’s no hobby – I am providing a service and creating expectations.
What about you? I invite you to think about those areas of your business that – on a large or small scale – are chaotic. In what corners of your business do you feel most frustrated with your staff? What complaints do you most often hear from clients? These things are all clues that you need to look at your systems.