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How to create a balancing or improvement system

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

How to create a balancing or improvement system

Scott Miker

There are many ways to design systems and habits to improve an area of your life.  I have worked through many different system designs and habit changes and found that the options are numerous.

With all of those options it can be hard to get started.  I always recommend starting slowly (such using the technique setting the minimum).  But that still might not be enough information to really understand how to do this.

Whether in a business setting or with personal goals, I have found that there is a general structure that works very well.  It consists of a behavior change or changes and then a way to monitor its effectiveness.

Usually the monitoring can remain the same and evolve slowly over time while there may be more and more behavior elements underneath that might change often.  Let’s explore some examples.

In our business, throughput is very important for us to control.  We want to make sure we have the right number of people working through our backlog.  Too many and soon we will find that we need to get rid of someone or find other things for people to do (such as cross-training or letting people leave early on a Friday).  Not enough we start to get buried in work. 

So we measure incoming units and outgoing units.  Because the nature of our business is different than a manufacturing setting, these numbers can vary each week.  We are a repair business so we may get an influx of broken units from a customer that we couldn’t have anticipated.  We may have a parts backorder causing units to stop getting completed until we receive in more parts. 

But tracked over time this gives us our throughput.  A few weeks of our incoming units being drastically higher than our outgoing units and we might have a bottleneck somewhere or not enough technicians.  A few weeks of our outgoing units being significantly higher and we will be eating through our surplus.  This could be good if we have a lot to get through, or this could be a problem if we don’t have a lot ready to be worked. 

This system represents a common systems approach by having 2 key elements.  The first is the consistent monitoring over time.  We can use this data to clue us into how our system is performing and let us know when we need to adjust. 

The second is the corresponding action from the monitoring portion of the system.  The data clues us into an area that needs attention.  The action steps we take then correct for variations in our data. 

In essence we create a balancing feedback loop that helps us remain constant and not get too out of whack.  Before we get too far out of whack, we would have noticed and made changes to better align our operations. 

This business operations example shows one particular system, but what about personal goals?

The same structure can be used in a number of places.  I use a similar structure for budgeting, weight management, and writing articles for my website. 

For budgeting I create a spreadsheet that has several categories of types of expenses.  Then as I input a purchase or bill payment, I subtract it from the corresponding category (travel, charity, monthly bills, insurance etc). 

I can quickly see when a category is getting too large or small.  Knowing I need X each year for insurance, if I surpass that I can take some out and put it somewhere else that might be a little short.  If the total amount is dropping each month, I can tighten up my spending approach to make sure I am only buying crucial items for a few months and holding off on non-essential purchases. 

This system represents the monitoring and tracking element and the corresponding behavior change(s). 

For weight management, I weigh myself daily.  This helps me understand when I am trending up or down.  If I am trending up, that usually means I have to get back to some good habits and I probably slipped in a couple areas.  Then the amount of time I exercise might vary based on how my weight has fluctuated in the past few days.  It helps me remain in a balanced state and address life’s natural ebbs and flows. 

When I write articles I also use a similar approach.  I set a goal of X articles per week.  I schedule articles out 3 weeks.  This allows me to quickly see if I have X articles per week for the next 3 weeks.  If so I can slow down how much I push writing more articles.  If not, I know I need to write more and need to find the time to carve out so I can meet my target. 

Another way that we can use this structure is to monitor the impact of new changes.  If we find a new efficiency we can see if we actually see that in our throughput.  I use this often with our staff.  We track time per unit for various activities and can quickly and easily measure a change we implement to see if it does, in fact, improve our time per unit or not. 

Using systems to manage our lives can be a great way to make sure we are moving in the right direction and hitting the goals we set.  It can give us insight into how we are performing and alert us to a developing problem before it becomes a crisis. 

Having the monitoring/tracking element and the subsequent adjustments creates a great balancing feedback loop to make sure we don’t deviate too much.  Having a monitoring/tracking element and slight improvements can help us track to make sure our changes are having the intended results.  Either way, using this type of system can be incredibly beneficial.