The Systems Approach Step by Step

The last in a series provides a road map for addressing any business challenge.

By Anthony G. Noel


It has been over a week. The last time you called, you were none too happy. And though you have asked for a personal meeting to resolve the issue, your salesperson has been avoiding you like the plague.


The Systems Approach, in a Nutshell

Step One: Identify an activity and your goal.

Step Two: Brainstorm approaches.

Step Three: Implement an approach.

Step Four: Measure your success

Step Five: Repeat the process.


Before this supply problem reared its ugly head, everything was great. You would call, place an order, and it would be there on time, every time.

It seemed logical to give this vendor a little more responsibility, particularly when the salesman assured you of the same service, pricing and quality you had come to expect.

“It’s a new product for us,” he told you, “but we are very comfortable that the manufacturer can meet the demand.”

Turns out he was wrong. And now, the job is late.

When you got into woodworking, dealing with these hassles was the farthest thing from your mind. Now every day, it seems, there is another facet of running your business to deal with. And truth be told, you would rather not be bothered.

We have discussed the Systems Approach over the past several issues, and I have said that adopting it can make dealing with such issues easier. It won’t make them go away, but the better you get at it, the more time you will have for other things. For it is our very thinking about how we hate doing “business stuff” that allows us to be victimized by it, rather than keeping it under control.

So how do you implement the Systems Approach? Is there, as with making a piece of furniture, a step-by-step process?

Yes, indeedy. And the parallels between the two are striking.

Just as specifying a project is the first step on the road to building it, being specific about business issues is the key to dealing with them efficiently. In other words: identify the activity and the goal(s).

Step two in building a piece of furniture is thinking about the best construction technique. Similarly, you can’t deal with a business problem -- at least, not effectively -- until you come up with some ideas for doing so.

As you move from the office into the shop to get started on your furniture project, you are armed with a drawing and cutlist. Step three is taking those plans and putting them into action, and the same holds for addressing your business issues. After you have narrowed the possibilities down to the best two or three, implement those that hold the most promise. But be ready to try others if necessary.

Perhaps it is the whole notion of being a businessperson that annoys you. You pictured yourself knee-deep in wood dust most days, and instead you are on the phone, in the company books or appeasing customers.

The sad truth is, all these duties come with the turf. But there is good news, too. Just as experience makes us progressively better woodworkers, handling the business side becomes easier with practice. Use that as your motivation to get good enough at it that you can at least tolerate it. (A corollary: The easier things are to do, the easier they are to tolerate!)

In the example of our no-show vendor, your first mistake was waiting a week. God created overnight delivery for a reason. Use it, and use it to your advantage when faced with this sort of situation (meaning, have the vendor pay for it).

But what if the material isn’t even fabricated yet? This oft-quoted excuse of vendors is just that, a lame excuse. You neither told them to begin carrying the product nor held them at gunpoint to extract a delivery date. Yet the date has come and gone, and now the vendor is telling you it is not their fault, but the manufacturer’s. Au contraire!

As far as I am concerned, and as far as you should be, what happens to material you order from a distributor prior to its arrival at your receiving dock is not your concern. If you have a confirmed date from your vendor, that’s all you need.

But what if you don’t? Well, my friend, that is just another reason you need to implement the Systems Approach!

If you had given thought to your purchasing procedure, you would have realized the value of getting that commitment from the vendor. You would also have a better idea of what supplies are crucial and what are not, in terms of completing specific jobs.

Nonetheless, if you are buying anything without knowing the date it is expected, it is likely because “buying things” happens to be one of those business issues you would rather not deal with. Yet, by taking ten seconds during the ordering process to get a delivery date for everything you order, you would have all the ammo you need if something goes wrong.

The Systems Approach works similarly in all other areas of your business. But you have to follow the steps to see the gain.

  • Step One: Identify the activity, and your goal(s) for it. (Activity: Marketing. Goal: To attract the biggest possible audience of qualified buyers for our product.)
  • Step Two: Brainstorm approaches for realizing the goal(s). (Approaches: Advertising in targeted-circulation publications or on radio or TV programs that deliver the audience you seek; or, displaying work at appropriate home, craft or woodworking shows; or, developing word-of-mouth advertising through an active referral incentive program.)
  • Step Three: Implement the most promising of your brainstormed approaches (usually more than one).
  • Step Four: Measure your success.
  • Step Five: Repeat the process.

Take a few minutes now to identify areas where things could be running more smoothly. Purchasing? Accounting? Employee management or recruiting? Marketing? Put a name on every one of the business activities you perform, just as you call shop tasks by their names (stock prep, cutting, assembly, finishing, etc.).

Next, consider plausible approaches. If there is a person or two you work with, or if you have a business partner, ask them for input.

Brainstorming is powerful thing, and when more than one person is involved, it is downright incredible. The ground rules: hold nothing back. Blurt out every idea that comes up. Some will be eliminated before you even write them down, others as you are poring over the results. But you cannot solve any problem without identifying potential solutions.

Then, implement the best ideas by establishing clear, written policies. Take note of what works and what doesn’t, and measure the success of your policies, refining them as conditions and experience warrant.

The Systems Approach is really no different than your system for doing fine work in the shop. Implementing it on the business side will make your company more efficient, more professional and more profitable.

My best wishes to everyone for a peaceful holiday season. And here’s hoping your New Year gets off on the right foot. (No pressure. After all, it will merely set the tone for the next millennium!)

See you in February.

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