Effective business systems and processes lie at the heart of any successful organisation. They allow the business to consistently provide the outputs needed to the required standard. This applies equally to the systems and processes that provide products and services to customers as to the other internal processes that any business needs.

Developing clear processes

Successful systems have clear processes that everyone involved can understand, that are fit for purpose and comprehensive and can be operated by anyone with the relevant training. As a previous boss of mine once said “have a system, keep it simple and then stick to it!” – good advice.

Systems are more than the IT that a business might be using, they are the processes and procedures that are used in the business to turn an input into an output, some of which may be embedded in a variety of IT systems.  There is no point in automating an ineffective process or designing an IT system to streamline the wrong business process.

Take a finance system as an example, it needs to accurately capture all the transactions in the business, record them correctly, account for VAT and tax correctly. There needs to be a clear process for staff to put in an expense claim, raise a sales invoice or purchase goods and services for the business. It needs to have embedded within it the controls needed to protect the business and to comply with the law.  It also needs to be as easy as possible for members of the team to use. The outputs of the finance system are reports of various types for different purposes. At the highest level the system needs to reliably provide accurate financial information to the right people at the right time in a format they can understand and interpret.

There are systems throughout any business, from sales and marketing to HR and finance, to customer relationships to producing goods and services. If something is done over and over again it lends itself to creating a system or consistent process.

Continuous improvement

Effective systems and processes need to be fit for purpose today. As the business grows and develops over time, priorities change and the systems and processes need to grow and develop too. Even in a stable environment systems and processes can be refined, improved and even simplified. They need to capture the organisation’s learning over time, based on real experience rather than theory or the way a piece of software happens to be configured.

Document business processes

For any system to be successful the people using it need to understand how to use it. Clear documentation of the system helps in a number of ways. It is useful for people when being trained on the system, it means that other people can more easily step in to run key processes when the usual team member is away and the discipline of documenting it often highlights issues and inconsistencies.

The activity of documenting the systems often shows that the theory of how it should work differs from how people are actually using the system day to day. People often find different ways of doing things which are more efficient and ignore elements that add little value or are too complicated. Updating the documentation of a system gives the opportunity to refine the system, or top up the training.

Creating documentation also shows up where individuals are a key part – or the only part – of the system. This is a risk because it is no longer a system that is robust and that others can follow because the only person that understands the system is the person doing it. It is quite possible that that person doesn’t even really know the individual steps they follow as they are so familiar with it – they “just do it”. It’s only the process of documenting what they do – and have someone else review it – that the process can be fully understood and communicated to others.

Put simply, a system is operated by a person, it isn’t a person!

Review your business systems

If you’re not sure where to start with your business, here are some questions to get you started:

  • Have you got clear, consistent systems for each of your key business processes?
  • Do people follow the systems?
  • Are the systems and processes still fit for purpose? Are they helping people to do their work and meet business objectives? Or are they  just creating more work? Or driving the wrong behaviour?
  • Do all your staff understand the system and have they be trained to use them appropriately?
  • Do your business systems and process work well together?
  • Are all your processes documented clearly?

This could be your first step in turning your business into a set of systems that can operate without you!