What Makes Systems Suck?

By , December 12, 2012 4:24 pm

Today’s blogpost is written by guest blogger, Stacey Pruim, Founder and CEO of System Serenity. Enjoy!


What is a system?

That has to be THE most frequent question I am asked… you know, other than, ‘are we there yet?’

It’s a simple question with a more complicated answer. A system is not only a gathering of tools to accomplish a task, it also includes the tasks themselves, the process for getting things done, and even the people who are part of the process.

I remember a day back in elementary school when we were asked to write newspaper articles. We were told to bring ‘everything to the table’ when describing our topic… The Whole Scoop meant we needed to include:

The 5W’s and an H.






And How….

I used to think a system was just the “How” we got things done…

How we:

  •      Get ready in the morning
  •      Get dried off when we get out of the shower
  •      Get kids to school, ourselves off to work, our pets to stay
  •      Pay our bills
  •      Organize our desks
  •      Start our cars
  •      Take an incredible vacation

And then I realized there was far more to it than just the How. Systems also require the 5W’s.

I’m a mother, and I bet there are a few others out there that might relate to the system I have to get the day started… I call it: “Operation Get Them Out The Door.”


  •      The whole family – some participants willing, others reluctant. 😉

What is being done?

  •      Showering
  •      Brushing teeth
  •      Hair drying
  •      Getting dressed
  •      Ensuring the kids are getting ready
  •      Making breakfast and packing lunches
  •      Signing forms and notes … and so on

What is needed to perform the tasks?

  •      Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  •      Hair brush, blow dryer
  •      Shower, soap, shampoo, conditioner, razor, towels
  •      Clothes, accessories, shoes
  •      Kitchen utensils, food
  •      Backpacks, textbooks, notebooks
  •      A cattle prod 😉
  •      Pens, paper…

Where are the tasks performed?

  •      In the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen
  •      In the car  … on the driveway, roads, the highway
  •      In front of the school…. and Starbucks after the bell

When?  What time?  Duration?  Sequence?  Frequency?

Can anything be done in advance?

It’s all well orchestrated from the alarm blast at 5:30am…

until the “first bell” at 8am on the school campus.


  •      What is the intended outcome?
  •      Why does it matter? For the sake of what?
  •      What happens if this task is missing or changed?


  •      Are the tasks performed?
  •      Do we know when we are done?
  •      Do we track our progress?

I chuckle when people tell me they don’t have a system. We have systems for everything we do… if we didn’t, things wouldn’t get done.

It’s not that we don’t have systems; it’s just that often our systems SUCK. What we need are GREAT systems, systems that are deliberate, well-conceived and effective.

Systems that suck have one common denominator:  The people that conceived them didn’t think beyond the ‘technique’ to create the result. They didn’t ask the depth of questions needed to design a SUCCESSFUL system…

You can think of systems like a Russian doll or sometimes like the cogs in an old watch. There can be many nested levels of activity…  and when one is either missing or changed or moved, it impacts all those around it.

You could say there is a system for brushing your teeth. Or you could look at brushing your teeth as one element in the system of personal hygiene.

Personal hygiene is a ‘component’ of getting up and out of the bedroom… but that’s just a portion of getting up and out of the house.

And that needs to be augmented by the preparation of breakfast (to sustain for the morning) and packing of lunches (to sustain for the afternoon).

It would seem like getting my kids to school in the morning is a feat in and of itself, but really, that is just one bit of their day… which is just a part of their week, which is a part of their school semester, their year, their high school career…  Sooner or later it’s just a little blip on our system of “growing up.”

But no matter what level you are looking at, the system we use to accomplish each task is so much more than the tools we use. It’s the people that interact with these tools, what they set out to accomplish, when, where, why… and in the highest sense these all become the How.

In your business, you have a product or service that you deliver, right? Let’s say your business is a bakery. There are many different levels involved in the delivery of your service.

  •      Baking cookies, cakes, muffins, brownies, croissants
  •      Ordering ingredients and supplies
  •      Organizing kitchen utensils and storing ingredients
  •      Cleaning utensils and work areas
  •      Maintaining equipment
  •      Deciding how much of each item to bake
  •      Receiving money and getting it to your bank
  •      Scheduling, tracking and paying employees
  •     Communicating your menu and ‘daily specials’
  •     Opening for business and closing at the end of the day
  •     Setting the alarm

Each of these activities have a Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Systems are NOT independent. When any of these activities are done differently, moved, omitted, or changed in some way, related tasks are impacted.

In short, while nothing on this planet is accomplished without a system, the best way to ensure they don’t suck is to develop them with the 5W’s and the How clearly in mind. You will see stress levels lower, your business run more smoothly and efficiently, you will be able to generate more income, and your business can grow with ease.

Have you considered all you should in your systems?


Author Bio: 
Just as you’re passionate about your business, System Serenity founder and CEO, Stacey Pruim is passionate about systems! After graduating with a degree in Systems Design Engineering, Stacey honed her talent as a Systems Guru working across several business sectors. 
Now, after over two decades in the corporate world streamlining and optimizing systems for large companies including General Motors, IBM, and Northern Telecom, Stacey has translated her skills to meet the needs of small business owners. She helps creative entrepreneurs improve their processes, leverage the use of technology, and improve the effectiveness of their teams.  This increases the time and energy they get to devote to their own vision and genius work. Learn more about Stacey and her work at www.systemserenity.com.


10 Responses to “What Makes Systems Suck?”

  1. ElaineBailey says:

    The word ‘system’ has always made me roll my eyes and feel bored! Now I really understand what a ‘system’ is and how they are so integrated into our lives. We have systems for everything!

    I guess it’s only when they ‘suck’ that we feel the pressure and stress.

    Thanks Stacey for changing my whole mindset around what a system is and how so important it is to have great systems in your business life if you want to be successful.

  2. Miranda (Mindful Mimi) says:

    Hi Elaine and Stacey,
    I have two small kids and things would be very messy and frustrating if we didn’t have systems.
    And a system can often be as simple as singing the same song when trodding off to the bathroom to brush their teeth. I was always singing that tune when they were little. Then they got a bit older and I stopped. And it wasn’t until I heard THEM hum the tune when they went to brush their teeth that I realised it had become a ‘system’.


  3. Stacey Pruim says:

    Thanks Elaine!

    And thank YOU so much for your keen ability to call it out when the ‘engineer speaks and nobody is listening’… you’ve helped me so much with my own clarity around systems and how to speak about them!

    Watch http://www.systemserenity.com for ALL KINDS of posts coming up these next few weeks from people (including you!) that are recognizing the need for systems that rock the house!

    They will all be telling the story of either implementing new systems or making changes to existing ones that are having a huge impact for them and those around them!

    Systems ranging from parenting to finance, mindfulness to client management, law, creativity, leadership… you name it… there is a system for EVERYTHING 😉

  4. The “why” is so important to me. Sometimes we do things a certain way just because we’ve been doing it that way for years and years or because we think we “supposed” to do it that way. We develop habits and we may forget that they are habits – ones that can change if we want them to. It’s helpful to me to examine the “why” every once in a while to see if my systems align with my goals. If not, I can change my system to better suits my “whys.”

  5. Fabulous article that clarifies what systems are all about. You are correct in that many people have a system or routine that doesn’t work very well. Time to tweek them, include the 5 w’s and make them more efficient! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Megan says:

    Just the word “systems” makes me feel hemmed in, even though I know that without it, many important things don’t even get off the ground. I always liked the idea of waving a giant magic wand around, instead. Thanks, Stacey, for laying some ground rules for planning,then seeing a system (magically) unfold!

  7. Stacey Pruim says:

    Mimi, it is SO true that we often don’t know what we have had become a habit or ritual.

    Noticing them sing when they go to brush their teeth? I *LOVE* that! It’s such a great example of how the routine becomes the natural thing to do.

    And, as you point out Kelly, do we often don’t even know ‘why’ it is that we are doing it this way. Or what it was that started the ritual to begin with. So asking these questions at regular intervals is wise because… things change. And reasons come and go… might be an even bigger why that needs to be served 😉

    Excellent time for you to be tweaking Lauren! Happy almost freedom day to you!

    Megan, you point out something that I run into a lot. Many people have experienced systems that handcuff them. The real value of systems is in their ability to give you flexibility, not take it away. Be sure when you are defining things, answering your 5w’s that you keep pretty high up on the list flexibility…

    If a system isn’t natural for you… it won’t last and will basically never become a habit. Don’t settle 😉

  8. ElaineBailey says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments here. This is such an interesting subject (…Yes…from someone whose eyes used to glaze over at the mention of the word system!!)

  9. Thanks for this Stacey! I’ve been doing a lot of work with habits – how we form them, why we form them, how to change them – and I love how what I’m learning dovetails with your clear, concise explanation of how to create effective systems that help us to do and create what we want.
    PS – I also use a cattle prod as part of my morning “get everyone out the door” routine!

  10. Kelly Pratt says:

    Stacey and Elaine,
    boy, is this a hot topic! I’m a right brain (often scatter brained) creative life coach who thought that what I needed was FREEEEEEEDOM!!! What I’ve discovered over the last few years is that what I call the “mental ephemera” – all the shoulds and have-tos hover in the periphery of my mind and – even if I’m done with every thing – I still can’t relax enough to actually create.

    so… structure and systems. I’ve actually tweaked my practice to help creatives with just this issue… Freedom does not = more creating; the converse is true – right STacey? Structure and systems = freedom!

    you are one really smart cookie!

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