A System is NOT a Process

By | Systems Thinking | No Comments


I presented a workshop a few weeks ago for CONNECT called Bulletproof Information Systems and I noticed that what people struggled with most was understanding the distinction between a System and a Process. When asked to list a process they would like to map out, many people listed things like marketing and lead generation, both systems not processes.

A light bulb went on – they don’t know the difference, and neither do most people.

Part of the problem is the use of the terms “system” and “process” and that they’re often used interchangeably although shouldn’t be.

I’ll define the terms here to start:

  • Business Process – a series of ordered activities that convert inputs into higher-value outputs
  • Business System – a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements organized to meet a particular set of business objectives

Some examples of Business Systems include:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Operations
  • Order fulfillment
  • HR
  • Training
  • Accounting
  • Payroll
  • Collections
  • Service delivery

Let’s take Marketing for example. You understand that you don’t “do” Marketing. Marketing, instead, is a collection of people, systems, processes and platforms that combined make up the “Marketing System” for your business.

Zooming into Marketing will show systems within a system.

Under Marketing you might have the following sub-systems:

  • Lead Generation Systems
  • Newsletter Systems
  • Social Media Systems
  • Direct Mail Systems
  • Podcast Systems

For each of these systems you may have more systems but will certainly have processes. A process helps you run systems more efficiently.

Do you “do” Lead Generation? No, you don’t. You likely have a number of systems that produce new leads. You might, however, have a process for staying in touch with your business network. Let’s call it your “Weekly Network Outreach Process” which will detail exactly the steps and tools you use to contact and quantify your network outreach. The process is the recipe.

Your Weekly Network Outreach Process would be a series of steps which you use to perform the task – mapped out in a checklist or flowchart. (See image below)

I’ve created this illustration below that should help you visualize the connection between systems and processes.

Additional Notes

Generally speaking there are 3 types of processes in a business.

  • Management processes include planning, organizing, controlling, and leading—the activities for governing your business
    (e.g., developing strategy, management meetings, and board of directors or advisors).
  • Operational Processes constitute your core business functions and create the primary value stream for customers
    (e.g., lead generation, sales, purchasing, production, order-fulfillment, shipping, and customer service).
  • Supporting processes uphold and sustain the core processes
    (e.g., accounting, hiring, information systems, safety, and custodial).

If you’d like to chat about a technology strategy, systems improvement or software solutions, I’d love to have a conversation – contact me.


Optimize BEFORE You Automate

By | Systems Thinking | No Comments

optimize before you automate
Happy new year! 2017 is off to the races and companies are coming back online and ready to tackle their goals for the new year. Like a lot of companies, a technology upgrade may be on the table for you. Maybe it’s a project management system, a CRM, an accounting platform, a workflow system – maybe it’s an off the shelf solution or a custom build… either way, STOP. Consider this quote before anything else.

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency. – Bill Gates

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to a company excited to implement a new technology that’s going to accelerate everything from lead generation to sales to service delivery – and solve all their problems. But… technology rarely does this on its own without bulletproof systems in place well ahead of any software solution.

We develop software and implement technology solutions and still I’m telling you, stop. Assess your systems and processes first, then evaluate a technology solution to accelerate your results. Of the abysmal failures I’ve seen, the single more prevalent cause was bringing in technology too soon and on top of garbage systems. The successful solutions we’ve implemented and seen implemented have all been based on a solid foundation of clearly defined and well thought out processes.

Here are a few questions to ask before geeking out on software:

  1. Do we have clearly defined and well documented processes?
  2. Are our processes repeatable, consistent and error-free?
  3. Do we have know the KPI’s we need to gauge the effectiveness of the functional areas of our business?
  4. Do we have a strategy for collecting, interpreting and acting on the data our business collects?

Here’s a great intro to Business Process Automation from Laserfiche.

If you’d like to chat about a technology strategy, systems improvement or software solution, I’d love to have a conversation – contact me.


Email is not your friend, Visualized.

By | Systems Thinking | No Comments
Visual Analysis of Typical Email Exchange

Let’s assume for a moment that you have a finite amount of mental bandwidth and that every piece of visual information that you have to process uses up some of that bandwidth. Here’s just one way that email robs you blind without you even realizing it.

To illustrate, I took a 7 email exchange with a colleague and dissected the information. The exchange went like this:

  1. I emailed a colleague with a simple request.
  2. He responded with a question.
  3. I replied with an answer.
  4. He emailed a 3rd person for clarification.
  5. He forwarded the 3rd person’s response to me with a question.
  6. I replied with an answer.
  7. He confirmed, and closed the thread.

I looked at this email exchange and highlighted all the new information, the redundant information, the sub-thread information and the completely worthless information. For all the text in the exchange, there were about 9 or 10 short sentences (6.81%) worth anything at all, out of the pages and pages of content.

The rest was either:

  • Redundant (17%) – when I reply to an email it (typically) includes the original email, over and over.
  • Sub-thread (7%) – content from a forwarded thread.
  • Worthless (69%) – just pure distraction, email signatures, disclaimers, greetings, etc.

Going back to the original assumption that your visual and mental bandwidth is finite – what happened is that a simple information exchange turned out to steal precious time and mental energy without me even noticing it.

Sure, you aren’t reading all the garbage that comes with emails like signatures and disclaimers but it’s there and your brain has to discern relevance or irrelevance. It’s like a filing system where 95% of the information is meaningless. Super helpful.

Now, would you consider that an efficient means of communication? A great tool for project management? A killer filing system?

The point of this post isn’t to tell you to stop using email. Not at all. The point is that, like certain family members at Thanksgiving, it comes with a lot of baggage.

In many cases it’s the right tool for the job but: It’s not a project management system. It’s not a filing system. It is most certainly not your friend.

In upcoming posts I’ll talk about strategically replacing email in your workflow, improving gmail productivity, and systems for managing communication and organizing information.

P.S. – Feel free to email me at michael@lithyem.net with any questions! HA


Email Exchange Mapped

Drag the red line left and right to see how I mapped the email according to the type of content. Green = Useful information, Orange = Redundant, Red = Sub-threaded, Grey = Worthless.

Smarter, Faster: Gmail Nirvana

By | Smarter, Faster | No Comments

Smarter, Faster by Lithyem: Gmail Nirvana

I’m always amazed at how overwhelmed nearly everyone I know and respect are by their inboxes. People who are absolute rockstars in life and business are brought to their knees by the oldest digital tool around. In the last few weeks I’ve had half a dozen people ask me how I manage to get to Inbox Zero every week – here you go.

Note, Inbox Zero is not a goal I set, it’s just a result of the systems and tools that I use to be incredibly responsive in communication and keep tasks & conversations organized.

The main tool in my arsenal is FollowUp.cc. It’s built for Gmail, works in Outlook but really shines in Gmail. There are a lot of similar tools (Boomerang, Gmelius, etc.) but for me this one checks all the boxes.

Here’s a few ways I work:

  • An email comes in that I don’t need to deal with until later: I’ll “snooze” it, so it’s gone from my inbox and pops back up at the time/date that I’ve specified.
  • I send an email to someone that requires their response: First I can see and get notified when they open it and second, I can have it send me and/or them a reminder if they haven’t responded by a date/time that I’ve specified.
  • I write an email but don’t want to send it until later: I just schedule the date/time I want it to send and don’t have to remember to later on.

The 2 major benefits I get are:

  1. I don’t get overwhelmed by all the emails sitting in my inbox and can focus on what’s important, when it’s important.
  2. I never have to create and manage todos for things that are in my inbox.

There’s a lot more to what it can do, but those are the basics. Give it a try and I hope it helps. I have no incentive to get you trying it out – it’s just a killer tool that keeps me out of the weeds.

Check out FollowUp.cc


Your Systems Suck and You Need to Know Why

By | Systems Thinking | No Comments
Business systems and process imrovement

Do your systems look like this?

Two words; Deliberate and Variance. If your business systems and processes have NOT been carefully designed, tested, documented and measured then they are not deliberate and I guarantee you that they have variance. If your processes use words like usually, typically and sometimes – we’ve got red flags.

Why do I care?

Without intention behind the design of operations and when each process varies from instance to instance you end up with massive inefficiency. Employees buried in excel and email, with desks covered in paper and post-it notes are all the rage in these companies. The fun really gets going with manual double data entry, having to correct errors constantly, and slow, inconsistent service. Forget real-time data and reports – that’s science fiction.

What’s the alternative?

A utopia of efficiency of course. Automation, organization and metrics. A business where computers do the routine work, where repetitive tasks are automated, where information flows like wine, and service is consistent. In this place, communication is quick and organized and technology is fully utilized. It’s a real place – I’ve been there. Getting there is simple. Its not easy, but it is simple.

So, how do I get there?

Here’s a few things you can do today.

  • Simplify Communication
    Business is people and people work by communicating. Does your company communicate effectively or accidentally. Are you underwater in email and revisions to Excel files? Consider replacing email with Slack or a dedicated project management system (Asana, Basecamp, SalesForce, etc) to take conversations out of email and put them in an organized, task-focused structure.
  • Become a Systems Thinker
    Effective systems and processes are the essential building blocks of a successful and profitable business. Try viewing your company as a collection of systems and work to refine and improve them every day. Check out the Checklist Manifesto and thank me later.
  • Standardize
    Businesses are too complex to navigate by trial and error. It’s estimated that the average employee has to make more than 10,000 separate decisions every single day. Standardizing procedures will allow your company to achieve better control over outcomes, period. You really don’t want your team winging it every day. Check out Work the System for more reading.

My next few posts will dive into some of the specific tools and frameworks we use to streamline, optimize and automate. Hang tight or get in touch for more info sooner!