Team Vs. Systems and Process: The Marines Perfect Balance

By: Alex Shattuck

The great debate. Should we rely on great teams or great systems and processes? I’ve heard it argued both ways for years and this is brought up quite often when coaching other business owners. What I typically see is that business owners who struggle with one will argue for the other. Let’s first look at relying too heavily on having rock star employees. 

Hostage Crisis

I have two major concerns here. First, every business owner has systems and processes within their business, whether they admit to it or not. Yes, you do also. They are either YOUR systems and processes, or they are your individual employee’s systems and processes, which they often refer to as “their way of doing it.”

The second problem with relying too heavily on employees is going to piggyback off my initial concern around “their way of doing it.” This problem is around employee turnover. How do you replace someone and their activities if you don’t know what and how they are doing it?

While in Iraq we had one of our radio operators out from a head injury, one from getting shot and another from rolling an ankle. Out of nowhere, I was handed the radio. Even though I hadn’t anticipated having to carry and use the radio, I was trained and fairly ready for the task. Being able to work the radio properly is something that we had not only been trained on, but also continuously trained on prior to and during our deployment. Being able to communicate and communicate the right way is extremely important in combat. Something as simple as being too slow at changing the battery could result in losing communication back to the base. Using words such as “repeat” instead of “say again” could result in having another mortar or artillery round launched, instead of simply having the Marine on the other end repeat what you didn’t hear the first time. Oops.

That is a simple example of the Marine Corps not relying too heavily on just people, but also having proper systems and processes in place. If your equivalent to a radio operator goes down, how much faith do you have in the next team member in line to execute that task? What about the team member in line after that? Lastly, when you rely too heavily on any one team member you run the risk of being held hostage by him or her. Earlier, we discussed how both parties in an employer/employee relationship could be winners. When you aren’t staffed from a position of strength with proper systems and processes in place to reinforce that strength, your complacency is putting yourself in a situation to lose. 

Can’t Fix Stupid

Now, let’s look at relying too heavily on systems and processes. Usually, when I see a business owner relying too heavily on their systems and processes they have issues with either recruiting or retaining talent, so they try to make up for it by having great systems and processes. Here’s the thing though… you can’t systems and process your way out of stupid. 

I’ve cut hair since I was 12. I was never trained to cut hair, I just learned by convincing my friends in middle school to allow me to give it a shot. Over the years I got pretty good at it and I ended up making some extra cash while in the Marines because of it. Often I would even cut my own hair. As long as I had a mirror that allowed me to see the back, I could give myself a pretty tight fade. It took longer to do it on myself but it could still be done. Years later, while at a local barber, I was getting my hair cut by the owner, a straight shooter. Although not a Marine, he cursed as often and had as many tattoos as the best of them. I asked if he cut his own hair. His response was epic: 

“I employ barbers… WHY THE F*&% WOULD I CUT MY OWN HAIR!?” 

“I didn’t know if you were super picky and preferred to do it yourself,” I responded. 

“Al, if I didn’t trust these guys to cut my hair I certainly wouldn’t pay them to cut someone else’s hair.”

That really resonated with me. At that time I had someone on my team that was kind of a rock and I personally wouldn’t have let him work on my accounts or refer any of my close friends or family to him. I realized I had been trying to fix stupid, and that can’t be done. My systems and processes were great but you can’t systems and process your way out of stupid, right? I left the barbershop that day and let that employee go.

“I can train anyone to do what we do.” I get this a lot but the reality is that those “anyone’s” referenced typically do not allow you to run the business in a way that allows you to scale and step back from the day to day. These “anyone’s” will take a lot more training, oversight and supervision. They certainly will not move your business in the direction of accomplishing the goal of decreasing your hours and increasing your profits.

So what’s the answer?

I believe we can find the answer by looking no further than to the United States Marine Corps. I believe the Marines have what I call the “Perfect Balance”.  

I might be a little biased, but the Marines have the best systems and processes in the world. We don’t call them systems and processes; rather we call them Standard Operating Procedures or “SOP’s”. To instill these SOP’s in me I went to Basic Training and then on to the School of Infantry. It didn’t stop there, though. We were always training and were always being evaluated to make sure we were within Marine Corps standards and regulations. If there was ever a time where a Marine fell out of the box they needed and wanted us in, that Marine would either quickly get back in the box or that Marine would no longer be in the Marines. 

All of this isn’t just to instill the SOP’S, but to make sure that person has what it takes to be a Marine and stay a Marine. Even though the Marines have some of the best systems and processes in the world, they do not rely solely on systems and processes. On the flip side of that, the Marines have some of the best men and women in the world but they do not leave it up to them to figure it out. They have the PERFECT BALANCE of the right personnel and the right SOP’s. 

As business owners why do we feel we have to choose between the two? Why do we train someone but then never check back to make sure they are still within our standards and regulations? LONGEVITY DOES NOT EQUAL LOYALTY. We have a fiduciary responsibility to our business to be better. 

There’s a certain amount of mental and physical capacity needed while being supported by SOP’s to be a successful Marine… I believe the same goes for being a successful employee in any thriving business. 

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