Why Systems Break

Three Reasons Processes & Systems Break Down

Hearing a grown man scream in pain is no joke.

When I was a teenager I worked in the printing department of a small town newspaper . One night I was working the dark room when I heard the head pressman scream out in obvious pain. As I went running for the production floor, I knew what to expect. The Beast – a massive green garbage-truck of a printing press – had claimed another victim.

The Beast was evil.

Stupid machine never ran quite right and broke down frequently. The Beast hurt people. Sometimes seriously (the pressman I ran to help lost most of his right arm).

Some machines seem built to fail. Sometimes they’re just old, but more often they were just poorly designed. Unreliable from the start.

Business systems are the same way.

I’ve spent much of my career turning around troubled businesses. I’ve seen my share of broken systems and in my experience there are three reasons they break down:

  1. Unclear Bins
  2. Missing Triggers
  3. Unicorns


Systems require holding tanks. Defined places where information is stored and accessible when needed. I call these bins. Many systems break down because they lack clear bins. Nobody knows where anything should go, so critical information ends up just scattered around.

Another variant is competing bins. Multiple places that hold the same – but potentially conflicting – information. Most of the conflicts are age-related, multiple bins with the same information but some less up-to-date than others.

The best systems deliver the right data to the right place at the right time, without confusion about which data is most current.

QUICK ASSESSMENT: In your systems, where is critical information stored? Is there ambiguity? Potentially conflicting data in multiple places?

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A trigger causes action to happen and the rule is simple: If an action is needed, a trigger is needed. 

Triggers can be fully automated or manual, but they can’t be absent. Anything but 100% trigger consistency (daily, weekly, per-cycle, any time “X” happens, etc.) threatens the system.

Using a collections system as an example, requiring an A/R agent to mail invoices for previous days orders, must have a trigger. A report that lists all orders from the previous day could work. As long as the agent is trained to pull that report every day and print every invoice, each invoice has a “trigger”. No hunting or guesswork needed, just pull the report and print all.

A system that doesn’t have well-defined triggers for every necessary action will break down. Not if… when.

QUICK ASSESSMENT: At what stages in your system is action required? What “triggers” that action? Does that trigger happen 100% of the time? Is it on a 100% consistent schedule or cycle?

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Unicorns aren’t real…no matter how much my 7-year-old daughter wishes they were. I’ve seen a lot of systems that require people to take action that, if people are being brutally honest, just isn’t going to happen. At least not reliably.

In one of my companies, we were having problems getting credit back from manufacturers for defective product. Our operations team put together a system that required the sales associate who helped the customer to fill out a long and highly detailed form. The form required a full explanation of the customer’s reason for returning the item, item cost at the time of purchase, item cost at the time of return, date of purchase, condition of the item, customer contact info, etc.

This form had tremendously useful information, just… not likely to happen. The statistical probability that EVERY sales associate will remember to fill out the FULL report EVERY time (pretending that no associate will ever have another customer come up and need assistance while they are filling out the form, for example) is literally zero. It’s a unicorn.

Don’t build systems on unicorns. Deciding that your people “should” do something doesn’t mean they can or will. Weak system-builders require actions that aren’t likely to happen long-term. Then they blame “weak people” for not following through.

QUICK ASSESSMENT: What actions will people need to take for the system to succeed? How likely is it that that action will be taken every time? Are there any “unicorns” in the system… wishful actions that aren’t really likely to happen?

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