When systems fail

I recently had a horror experience with a bank. Well, horror is probably an overstatement, but for someone like me to whom process and efficiency are important, the completely avoidable fiasco felt especially painful. As I stood raging in line (yes, I did – it’s not an exaggeration), I started to think about why the failure might have happened, and think I traced it back to a key moment in my short history of transactions with that particular bank. Here is the thing – in my eagerness to speed things along and be more efficient, I may have actually messed things up with their system. I’ll tell you what – nothing cools down a rage like acknowledging that you might be responsible! I thought a post on systems failure and review might be interesting and helpful for those who are keen to adopt a more systems-based approach to their home or business.  

Rule #1: Be kind

Actually it’s the only rule I have for systems review. The first thing to remember is that this isn’t an excuse for a beat-up, on yourself or anyone else who is involved in your system. It isn’t an opportunity for some self-flagellation (side bar – flagellation is such a great word), or negative talk of any kind. The point here is not to assign blame, point fingers, or jump up on a soapbox and get all preachy about how things coulda/shoulda/woulda been better “if only”. Once you’ve donned your kindness kimono, let’s roll. 

How to review a system

You will need: 

  • 15 minutes of your time (Based on a simple system review. More complicated systems will take longer.)
  • A pencil
  • An eraser
  • A highlighter, coloured pen, or felt tip pen
  • Some scrap paper (dig around in your recycling box and see if you can find an old letter to scribble on the back of – this won’t be framed at the end so it doesn’t need to be a pristine new piece of paper). 

A few notes before we begin:

  • I use a pencil instead of pen for two reasons: 1) I adore the sound of pencil scratching sounds, and anything that makes me happy gets bonus points, and 2) you can erase and replace if you need to. And you probably will need to. At least once. 
  • I have used an easy example so I can work along with you but this process should work even for more complicated systems. You’ll just be doing a bit more writing. In my scenario, I did a grocery shop and missed out some key household items that we really needed. You can scroll to the bottom to see my completed example, so you know the finished product you are aiming for. 
  1. Grab your pencil, give your page a title but don’t worry about spending time decorating it. Whatever the system that failed was, go with that. 
  2. Write down every step that you took from when the process started to when it finished. Be honest. You would be surprised at how many people skip over key moments, even when they are on their own with the pencil and paper. Omitting things doesn’t help anybody. For me, grocery shopping begins with the weekly meal plan – that flows into my grocery list, and then the weekly shop happens on an assigned day that suits my schedule. The grocery shopping process ends when I have completed my weekly shop. 
  3. Once you are happy that all steps in the failed process have been identified, you should be able to clearly see one or more pointsat which things went awry. I call these Off-Course Moments – they are the steps in the process where, if you had taken a different course of action, the failure may not have happened. Pick up your coloured pen and either highlight or underline your Off-Course Moment(s); assign them with a number in the left margin. Still using your coloured pen, draw a dotted line underneath your pencil notes – ruling off that part of the work, so to speak. 
  4. At the bottom of your page (or on another piece of paper if you need to) write down the number corresponding with your first Off-Course Moment, and then bullet point the alternative courses of action you could have taken that could have steered the process back on course. Use as many bullets as you need, remembering Rule #1 above. Repeat this process for each of the Off-Course Moments you identified. 
  5. Have a look at what you have written below the dotted line – you want to objectively assess your notes, and rule out anything that isn’t helpful or realistic. Do that by drawing a single line through the note. Keep going until you are happy that all that remains below the dotted line is realistic and likely, should you find yourself up against a similar Off-Course Moment in the future. 
  6. Now we’re going to assign two scores at the bottom of the page. Once is the “Recurring” score, in which we assess the likelihood of this set of circumstances repeating – this indicates repetitive systems failure and thus a major barrier to efficiency. The other is the “Annoyance” score, in which we assess how much of an issue this really was in the bigger scheme of things. For both scores, 1 is the minimum (minimal chance of recurring, minimal annoyance in the bigger scheme of things) and 10 is the maximum (highly likely that this will happen again, and a catastrophically bad systems failure).
  7. If you score you systems failure 5 or lower in either category, I wouldn’t recommend any further action other than recycling your paper. If you score your systems failure 6 or above, I suggest you go back to the drawing board and have a go at redesigning or refining your system. If this is the case, you may find it useful to take a photo on your phone of your systems review notes, before recycling the paper. [BONUS TIP: If you do this, create an album in your phone’s Photo app called Systems Review, and file the photo in that folder immediately. Nothing worse that trawling for ages trying to find the pic you are looking for and getting distracted by your recent snaps!]
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Now what? 

Congratulations – you’ve completed a basic systems review! I hope you found some clarity in what went wrong with your system and why. Keep in mind that this systems review process is supposed to be fairly quick and dirty, and serves only to draw attention to any systemic problems that may not be obvious without some analysis.


If you have systems in place and think you may be in danger of repetitive or catastrophic systems failure, please get in touch. I love working with people to establish systems that simplify their lives, households and businesses.