Systems 101

Business team working in a start-up office

My passion for studio systems grew out of a health scare. I was born blind in one eye, and about seven years ago my doctors discovered ocular melanoma (a rare cancer) behind my good eye. Even with experimental surgery I still had a 75 percent chance of losing my eyesight. I thought, “If I do, what will happen to my studio?” No one knew how it ran but me.

Time was of the essence, and with only three weeks before the surgery, I did everything I could to document the most important tasks of the business. Instead of spending time with my family and seeing all of the things I might never see again, all I did was work.

After the surgery went well, I realized I could never let a situation like that happen again. So I sat down with my top two people and said, “We need to document everything that goes on here. And I mean everything.”

Today, I’m glad to report that my dual leaps of faith—both to undergo the experimental surgery and to actively involve my team in my business’ operations—have led to success. Systems were the solution.

What is a system?

A business system is the formulation and documentation, from start to finish, of something that happens in your business. Systems can be created for almost anything, from operations such as payroll and processing tuition payments, to teacher-centric activities such as selecting and submitting costume choices. We even have systems for janitorial duties or what to do if the stereo system doesn’t work.

The system that makes my staff laugh is the one they use for creating documents: approved fonts and colors, how to space the text evenly on the page. But with this system they understand exactly how to create documents that will meet my approval—meaning, I can trust them to do the work and the results are consistent.

Every single job or task is documented in detail, with instructions regarding who is going to do what (including me), and when. And since almost everything will be repeated at some point, these systems assure quality and efficiency. It’s much easier to tweak an existing system than start from scratch. 

While it certainly takes time and effort, once created, systems protect our time as owners. A lack of systems means you are operating in a whirlwind state of mind, constantly putting out fires, and subject to burnout. Having systems allows you to work on your business, not in it.

How do they work?

I’ve created templates or basic outlines that we follow when creating a new system. For example, our template for the system of “community event” can be adapted for any community event. If we are marching in a parade or attending a festival for the purpose of generating leads, details might change but certain steps are a given: info is given to the graphic designer, who creates print communications which she sends to our social media person. There are dates for when the info will be released to our clients and when it will be posted online. One staffer checks into what gear we need and orders it; another is responsible for signing-up volunteers or training staff. Our team meets and we brainstorm CRUD: how do we cross-sell, re-sell, up-sell, or down-sell at this event?

Post-event follow-up is also part of our systems: Leads and participants are contacted with special offers or surveys. We track metrics to measure our results, and if there were bumps or challenges, we write the solutions into the system to assure a smoother ride next time. 

Any given system in my business has between five and 13 steps. The systems are organized on a dedicated website so staff can review at any time their responsibilities and deadlines. I set the metrics or goals based on what I expect, whether it’s a financial goal (such as ticket sales) or task-related (such as dates for turning in edited music or completed forms).

How do you create a system?

The biggest obstacle to creating systems is the amount of time and effort needed from you. Once I decided I needed systems, it took me an entire year to create them. My advice is to create each system as you go through the season. As you plan for recital, for example, write down everything you and your team members do to prepare and organize, and when you are doing each task. Document in real time. 

What do you need to consider when creating a new system?

  1.  Back ramp. What are the activities we need to do in advance to prepare for this system’s outcome? 10 weeks out we need to do this, nine weeks out we need to do that, etc.
  2. Blueprint. What resources do we already have for this system? Have we written down any of this activity before? Or does a studio owner friend have a template to share?
  3. Basics. What needs to be done, when, and by whom? Be specific and don’t forget to include yourself and your tasks.

How do I train my team in systems?

When a new hire comes on board, we undertake a year-long, detailed training in systems. Every employee knows the exact expectations of the job and understands how even their smallest responsibility is important if the studio is to run smoothly. With systems, it’s obvious very quickly if a new hire isn’t going to work out.

Once a month we send “Here’s what’s coming up” bulletins to the team. Various employee sub-groups (teachers, admin, leadership, etc.) meet regularly to talk through every step of the systems they are involved in. Everyone is on the same page, working toward the same goals. 

But should the “how” of my business be so exposed?

It can be a big source of stress when studio owners think staff can read their minds. If you’ve ever been disappointed by the results of an employee’s work, it may be because your expectations were all in your head—not documented or clearly defined.

People want to win for you: they want to work and do a good job and be praised. All you have to do is explain how to succeed and give them opportunities to do so. Systems help busy business owners do that.

Still, I understand the fear of opening up the details of your operations. I have worked safeguards into the system to protect my investment. For example, I’m the only person who handles finances such as bookkeeping and payroll. No one on my team has every piece to the full puzzle. But, if I was incapacitated by another health scare, with one password they could unlock those additional systems to keep the business going strong.

How do I start?

Whether you are a new owner or a business veteran, starting systems is a three-step process. First, ask yourself: How efficient is my business? Are my challenges related to finances, people, culture, or something else? Be honest.

Secondly, think about your goals. Do you want to teach more (or less)? Reach a specific revenue or enrollment goal? Remove yourself from daily operations? Many people won’t dive into systems until they are desperate, and by then, it’s an overwhelming amount of work. 

Finally, just get started. Start where you are and take one step. Then another. A system doesn’t have to be perfect, and each year your systems will evolve. The follow-through should prompt you to reevaluate goals and reset expectations if needed.

I’ll often talk to owners about systems, and then a year later they’ll say, “Oh, yes, I’m going to start on that now.” The truth is they could have been creating systems for that past year. Don’t wait! If your systems are in order, your business will be in order.

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