19 Jul 2020
System Building in Calendars

Work vs. System Building

Feeling incredibly behind lately, I was telling a friend that I wanted to take a couple weeks to set aside the distractions and work hard to catch up. She gave me some excellent advice.[1]

She said that sounded good, as long as I spent that time building systems, instead of just “doing work.” She meant that these two weeks should be an investment in our processes instead of just two weeks of me running faster on the treadmill.

Building systems feels a lot more meaningful than daily work, especially now, when so many of us find our work pales in meaning compared to the world on fire.

Or maybe daily work becomes more meaningful when augmenting systems is built into that work.

Building Systems

I found myself taking her advice. I’d noticed in our dashboard that one of our customers was getting a lot of configuration errors. So I wrote her an email offering to log in and fix them for her… then I made a short video showing her how to fix them herself, and added that video to our troubleshooting docs. There’s now a snippet in our help system we can send to anyone we see getting these errors.

I was going to just send a simple email to this one customer, but making a video and documenting it only took another 20 minutes. Now we have a better email nobody here ever has to write again.

After I emailed the snippet to our customer, I put a repeating event on my calendar to check for these errors every Monday. That calendar event doesn’t do the work for me, but it does mean I don’t have to work to remember to keep an eye on these logs.[2] It’s a version of Bezo’s dictum that “good intentions don’t work, mechanisms work.” Putting something on my calendar is the simplest mechanism I can deploy.[3]

“Work” is something we do once, something that doesn’t substantially reduce the amount of work we’ll have to next time. System-building is the investment that scales your work.

Work doesn’t reduce work; systems do. Click To Tweet

When I answer a customer’s question about our calendar app, that’s work. When I transcribe that answer into a snippet in our help desk, that’s augmenting our system. That’s knowing I’ll never have to write out that answer again. (And so I can take the time to craft a truly exceptional response.)

Examples of System Building

System building makes work repeatable with less effort. At their best, systems take work off of someone’s plate.

  • Adding a snippet to our help desk app
  • Updating an article in our documentation
  • Designing email campaigns to coach new customers
  • Simplifying internal apps or reporting
  • All checklists

Examples like those, from customer service, are easy to come up with. You’re augmenting a system whenever you can take routine work and repurpose it, the way customizations become success stories.

What’s the equivalent when your job is building a product? It’s those things that reduce future work.

  • Error trapping
  • Inline documentation
  • Tuning the build process
  • Blogging your design decisions
  • Certain kinds of settings

Build Your Future

Every day, we’re the beneficiaries of the system building that’s gone before us. Our jobs would be completely unmanageable without the systems we have in place for billing, payroll, deployment, and customer support.

I sometimes imagine if SeedCode had done no systems building in the last five years; imagine if we’d just done the work as it came in.

Now imagine if, in each of the last five years, we’d all spent 15% more time augmenting our systems.

What’s the balance in your day between producing work and building systems? Click To Tweet

Reach, Leverage, and Quality

Many people think of automation as the primary character of systems. Seeing systems as little business machines. Automation is real, but process design is more important. We often do things by hand until we understand them and then automate things. Doing that usually means we’re automating a smaller piece of the work than we initially imagined.

Instead of always aiming for automation, look for three characteristics of systems when you’re trying to find system-building you can chain onto your daily work.

Reach – how many customers see the work.

Leverage – how much work does something replace, OR how many of your colleagues can use it in their work. 

Quality – when sending someone an article from our docs, can I make any small improvement to that article, or make sure it’s up to date? Those improvements accrue, just like leverage does.

Augmenting systems as part of daily work is the real machine running inside great businesses.

The Punch Line: Making Time for System Building

When folks read the first draft of this essay, one common reaction was, “that’s nice, but I barely have time to get my daily work done.”

So, how do you make time to add system building to your daily work? There is only one way to “make time”–you have to do less. Do less, or go slower: there is no shortcut. Do less daily work today, knowing that your systems work will mean less daily work on your plate tomorrow.

In customer service, this means letting someone know you’ll reply to them tomorrow so you can craft a reusable response today. This works because that reusable response gives you time back each time you use it. One customer waits for an answer today so dozens (hundreds?) get faster replies tomorrow.

That’s how systems pay you back.

Turing Tumble GameHeadline image is from Turing Tumble, a game where kids build mechanical computers powered by marbles to solve logic puzzles. There are online simulators available here, here, and in VR here.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Excellent advice, as usual, from Kate Lee of Tilikum Software.
2. “If you don’t put things on your calendar, your mind is going to spend a considerable amount of time trying to keep its own calendar up to date in your head.” – Using Your Calendar to Reduce Stress
3. If I end up sending that email without modification for a few weeks, I’ll turn it into a webhook that will send the email whenever we get this particular configuration error. Automation isn’t the start of system-building, it’s a late part of hardening systems.


  • Bob
    July 19, 2020 Reply

    Dagnabbit, this is *so* spot on to how I envision great systems.

  • James Hea
    July 20, 2020 Reply

    Great article and a friendly reminder!

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