Every system has an “On/Off” switch

I hate when stuff doesn’t work. When I open my computer, I expect it to work – I need it to work. When I get into my car, I expect it to start – I need it to start. If you think about all the machines and other gizmos we depend on, each and every one has an “On/Off” switch. Flip the switch to “On” and we expect them to perform as designed.

In business, we design systems to produce specific, predictable and consistent outcomes. If you want your business to deliver world-class customer service, you need a system capable of producing that outcome. If you want to create predictable profits, you need a system capable of producing that outcome. Simply put, the systems we depend on have “On/Off” switches, too.

While giving a speech to a group of quality managers, I asked how important systems are to achieving consistent quality. After getting a collective “duh, of course!” response, I asked for the one common flaw that exists in the execution of all their quality systems. The unanimous answer was “leadership accountability.” It doesn’t matter how perfectly designed a system is, when you turn a system on, it doesn’t mean it will stay on. Leadership with inconsistent accountability is a recipe for compromise. A compromised system will deliver something less than expected.

Here are some no-compromise strategies to ensure that your systems remain locked in the “On” position:

  • Implementing a new system is a long-term project – not a short-term task: Systems are typically implemented with some degree of fanfare. Equate it to leaders shining a spotlight on the new system so everyone sees and pays attention to it. The switch is turned “On.” Once the spotlight moves on, attention shifts. The switch is turned “Off.” The process of locking in new systems, individually and in teams, is about changing behaviors – and changing behaviors is always a long-term project. Therefore, the implementation plan must include accountability checkpoints that extend months – even years – beyond the launch date.
  • Define outcomes and expectations: Launching a new system with a “do-it-this-way” attitude is command and control. The switch is flipped to “On” without those carrying out the system knowing the “why.” It’s like telling your team to run a race faster without knowing where the finish line is. Complacency and indifference will eventually flip the switch to “Off.” The best systems are built on a foundation of vision, clarity and understanding.
  • Systems must adapt or be replaced: While some systems may endure a lifetime, most require modification and upgrading to remain functional and adapt to changing conditions. Some need to be replaced entirely. When the variance between the desired outcome and actual results moves in the wrong direction, it should trigger an assessment of the system. No system is sacred or above scrutiny. If it’s turned “Off,” turn it “On.” If it’s broken, fix it. If it just can’t do the job, replace it.
  • System hang time is a leadership discipline: Great companies are accountable to their systems. But accountability begins at the top. Leaders decide where to set the company’s accountability bar. No-compromise leaders set the bar high for all to see and strive for. Excellence is embedded into the foundation of their company cultures. Lowering the bar is not an option. When leaders set the bar too low, their systems become fair game for compromise and routinely switch themselves to “Off.” Where is your accountability bar set?

Take an inventory of your systems to see which ones are turned “On” and which are turned “Off.” Every viable system found in the “Off” position should be viewed as a leak in the hull of your company ship. A company with too many leaks can sink just as fast as a ship.

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Please share your thoughts with me about today’s Monday Morning Wake-Up. Click the Comment button above.

Neil Ducoff, Founder & CEO of Strategies and author of No-Compromise Leadership

Pass this e-mail on to your business colleagues, managers and friends. They’ll appreciate it.


1 Response to “Every system has an “On/Off” switch”

  1. October 20, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Another sage piece of advice, Neil.

    When I started O’Brien Communications Group six-and-a-half years ago, I remembering thinking, “I wonder when and how I’ll have to blow things up.” I learned, of course, that it didn’t require anything quite so cataclysmic. But it does require vigilance, a willingness to change, and an unflagging disdain for complacency. Complacency is the carbon monoxide of businesses: a silent, virtually undetectable killer.

    Thanks, as always, for the wake-up call.

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