A bad system is better than no system at all

November 15, 2010

A business run without a system is like a car driven by a man with short-term memory loss, continually having to guess which pedal is the brake, the gas, and the clutch. It will, most likely, eventually, and with luck, go forward, but the passengers aboard will not find the ride comfortable or smooth. And if the environment the car is in is a fast-paced, highly-competitive Philadelphia freeway, then the passengers may not even survive.

I worked for a number of years across the street from what in the flower world would be called an “annual” cafe. It flowered approximately once a year, under a new name, with new owners, and a new, though usually similar, menu. The owners tried a number of different tactics–higher prices, less food, catering, advertising–but they all had one thing in common–they did not have a system. These folks served excellent food. I drooled over their burgers–yet the McDonalds down the street made more money than them. They did not have a system for ordering, for buying food, for cooking the food, for serving the food, for obtaining customers, for retaining customers–they figured “make it good and they will come.”

In the United States, the overpasses must be 14′ from the road way in urban areas, and 16′ in rural. It’s odd that they wouldn’t standardize on one–in fact, many people might be downright angry at a system with dual standards. I don’t know the historical background to this, or what competing factions had to compromise to get there. One thing is for sure, though–it is better to have something for the truck manufacturers and the freight carriers to rely on than to make no system of standards at all.

Lazy people have an edge over the more hard-working among us: they tend to do the same thing that barely worked last time. This, over time, multiplied by many lazy people working in concert, will mean that eventually some sort of ad hoc system will emerge. It will not be the best, it will not be perfect, and it may fail at times, but it will be a system. An unorganized, but hard-working group of people, by contrast, will have a tougher time. They will realize that the way they did it last time didn’t work so well–that maybe it barely worked at all. So they decide to try a different way, which they believe will work better. A local auto repair I use is like this–they are excellent, hard-working mechanics, who charge less than most and are completely honest, but they struggle to deliver on time, and have problems with cash flow, billings, and customer retention. They keep changing things, trying new methods, working ever harder, and generally staying fairly disorganized.

The lazy people would be helped by consciously putting together a system that works, instead of having a system emerge on its own–by the time the system emerges, it may just be too late. And the hard-working ones would be helped by realizing that consistency, even in a flawed system, can be helpful.

Don’t wait until the software you’ve just purchased for 50,000 dollars is configured exactly the way you want it, and don’t wait for all the users to be bought in. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that change for change’s sake is a good thing. Don’t think for a second that you couldn’t be helped by having some sort of system–software or hardware or practices or procedures–that would help you in your work. But remember that perfection is the enemy of the good. Get something going, and then change it incrementally, in thought-out iterations. But just get it going!

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5 Responses to “A bad system is better than no system at all”

  1. Dan Says:

    I was recently in a meeting with about 10 people from our agency, along with an outside vendor. They were making a pitch to provide us with some software systems to streamline some of our workflow and allow some different programs to play in the same sandbox nicely. It became obvious (as they were attempting to map our process workflow) that even our badly organized and clunky procedures were a much better starting point for improvement than those with no defined system at all. I have found that if a procedure or process is documented and defined somewhere (no matter how much it stinks), at least someone can follow it and find ways to make it better.

    Right on as usual! 🙂


  2. Its a mistake that a lot of salesmen make–they know that their software (or other product) is so much better and fancier and easier to use that OBVIOUSLY you’re gonna buy… until you realize that to make it play with the other systems you’ve got it’s going to cost way more money. Then you’re done, and the salesman can’t figure it out: “You’re going to stick with your DOS software???”

  3. Erik Lemmond Says:

    A bad reputation is better than no reputation at all.

  4. Arik Lammond Says:

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  5. Eric Lemmand Says:

    A penny saved is a penny earned.


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