Systems and Processes

A few weeks back I wrote about the importance and power of having a well-defined vision. While it is necessary to craft a vision statement that people can understand and follow, that in itself is not sufficient.

Without a way to bring the vision to life that can be understood and acted upon by others, the leader is in essence the pilot of a plane with no stairs or jetway to actually get followers on board or let alone any fuel to get it moving towards its envisioned destination.

Systems and processes are the ways to get people on board and collectively helping reach the envisioned destination.

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Some people in formal leadership roles think that directives are all it takes to get people to do what they say. If only it were that simple, leadership would be far easier. Instead a far more complicated and nuanced approach is necessary, one that combines the best of psychology, marketing, discipline, and repetition.

I think these two quotes from Kevin Kelly sum up the idea of balance between vision and empowerment well:

“The first thing I told our staff is that we would be in command and out of control” -Kevin Kelly (from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell)

Without some element of governance from the top, bottom-up control will freeze when options are many. Without some element of leadership, the many at the bottom will be paralyzed with choices.” – Kevin Kelly

In excellent service-oriented businesses, systems and processes are designed to make sure that the directives from the “command” part of the organization are followed in a customized and adaptable manner at the customer level. Under this model, being “in command” means setting a vision and creating systems that are memorable, exciting followers to achieve the vision, while empowering them with the autonomy to adapt processes and customizing approaches that align with the vision.

Football provides a helpful example: San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh is credited for creating an offensive system called, “The West Coast Offense”.

The basic system for the West Coast Offense was clear and memorable to everyone, “Control the ball through the short pass, always looking for the big play.”

The West Coast Offense is the system. The coaches and players created processes to make the system work. The video above shares the intentional processes needed to be successful in making the West Coast Offense work.

In the video, players describe Bill Walsh’s obsession with the quarterback’s (QB) footwork. Each play was timed by the QB’s footwork. For instance, when the play called for the QB to drop back 3-steps, the QB had to complete those three steps at the right cadence, because if he moved too quickly, the wide receiver (WR) would not be open yet to catch a pass. On the other hand, if the QB moved too slowly, the WR would be covered again and would still not be open to catch the pass. The QB’s steps were part of a process that made sure the QB and the WR were able to connect and communicate during the course of the game.

Walsh famously scripted the first dozen or so plays of every game, creating additional processes for his players to implement to further the success of his West Coast Offens system.

While Walsh was incredibly involved in the planning aspect of the work, he never was out on the field playing. He needed the plays and nuances (processes) to work in a way that the players could follow and execute. The processes were only viable because Walsh had the vision (win a Super Bowl), a system (the West Coast Offense), and processes (QB footwork, practices, scripting plays etc). All three of these aspects are not only important, but necessary for excellence.

Too many organizations in the service sector begin immediately with process and control through scripting without establishing the vision or system. For the front line team members, all this creates is a very long script of disparate tasks that seem isolated due to a lack of a system and therefore difficult to remember. So much more is possible through establishing direction, a clear system or philosophy to reach that direction, and empowerment.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Start with vision, then move to systems, then processes. Leaders in business often must be in command to meet objectives, but cannot create a service-oriented culture through processes alone. Empowerment is essential to creating processes that work and are sustainable.