Disgusting Bugs are Ruining Your Systems

We’ve been in this hotel for two weeks. The breakfast buffet is pretty good. It’s included in the price of the room so I “maximize” my value (and my waistline) each morning.

Today, there were ants climbing in the bread. That has happened only once before. It happened on the same day last week. The ants eat bread on Mondays.

Why Mondays?

Because the hotel owner – a very nice Swiss gentleman – is away on Mondays. The ants know that Monday is their day of freedom.

More accurately, the ants are at this hotel every day of the week, but they are only allowed to enjoy the bread on Mondays. The owner isn’t present and no one else protects the bread from ants.

A system is broken if it doesn’t work when the owner takes the day off.

It’s clear to me that the ants are massing for a quick crossing from the bread tray to the orange marmalade bowl. How did we get to this point?

There’s a poor system in place. Or maybe there isn’t a system at all. Maybe the system was never documented. If it was documented, the procedure may be unclear or confusing.

The problem could be that the system isn’t being monitored, supervised, and managed. Maybe it’s being ignored entirely because the staff were never properly trained.

Something is clearly broken if there are ants in the bread.

If you think your systems are working well, pack your bag and head to an island for a month. You’ll quickly discover how well things are organized. You’ll find the flaws in your documentation, your monitoring procedures, and your supervision process.

You’ll probably find those flaws before the month is over when the urgent calls start coming in on your resort's satellite phone.

I remember feeling (while stuck in court for days) that nothing useful was happening in my office. I remember knowing, with some certainty, that my employees were screwing around, eating tacos and cake, and dancing when they should have been working. Maybe I was being paranoid. Maybe I was right.

Systems need to work even when you’re not there to fix things.

“When the cats are away, the mice will play,” as the saying goes. It's true. The team in the hotel breakfast room spends more time chatting in the corner than defending against ants on Mondays. The system is broken.

The absence of key players is entirely predictable. Systems need to provide contingencies for things that happen when the owner is away. They also need to anticipate the unpredictable and unexpected.

A good system doesn’t break down when the owner hits the snooze button. It doesn’t fall apart if the managing attorney has a wedding to attend. It doesn’t get hobbled by a client who reacts badly.

Good systems also survive a hotel guest with an unusual medical crisis, a client who is killed in a freak car accident, or a zombie apocalypse. Excellent system documentation has instructions for when something happens that’s not covered by the system.

Each time we ponder about what we haven’t anticipated, we anticipate more. That creates a systematic approach that runs into fewer unexpected scenarios and gets it right far more often than wrong.

Systems need flexibility. They require thought. Systems need systems for using the system when the system doesn’t work as expected.

Creating system documentation is an imagination exercise that allows you to extensively employ your pessimistic side. What could go wrong? EVERYTHING could go wrong.

Ultimately, a system should keep the ants out of the bread. If they manage to get in, the system should have steps to remove them, clean or replace the tainted food, and fix any problems for guests. But if there's no system in place, those ants will have free rein.

I've created a course on how to implement and manage systems in a law firm. You might find it useful for keeping ants out of the bread.

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