The story I share today is not about exiting your company with the best severance package. It’s about something just as important in your business but many of us resist—an attention to detail and building sustainable and repeatable systems.

At 18 I joined the Army. It turned my life around and was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. There are a few things I learned during my time served that have stuck with me throughout the years. I believe these things can make any business or person better at what they do.

I was stationed in Italy and my job or MOS (as the Army calls it) was 92R or without the acronyms… a parachute rigger. We were also called red hats because we wore red baseball caps instead of the typical beret or army head gear. As far as I remember this was so we could be spotted and signaled out while on the airfield or tarmac.

A parachute rigger supports an airborne unit (maybe you’ve heard of the 82nd Airborne or 101st, ours was the 1/507th at the time). Our job was to maintain the parachutes, rig equipment for air drops, and most importantly pack the parachutes that paratroopers had on their backs as they jumped out of planes.

That last part is a huge responsibility and something we didn’t take lightly. Every now and then something in the Army makes sense and the way that they ensured we packed good parachutes was just one of those times.

I Sure Hope This One Opens

Here’s how they kept us honest…. Once a month we were required to jump out of a perfectly good airplane with a random parachute that we had personally packed. Isn’t that a great way to ensure quality control?

Imagine yourself sitting in a plane, its dark outside and on your back is a parachute chosen randomly that you packed. You don’t know when, what day, or even if this chute was packed at the beginning of your long day or at the end.

As a younger guy around other younger guys and stationed over in Italy at the time I do remember having fleeting thoughts of… is this the day after I went out all night drinking and got 2 hours of sleep?

Thankfully my chute always opened, as did every single one I ever packed. But it wasn’t because I was a great parachute packer, I wasn’t all that fast or all that good at it… these parachutes opened because I had followed a system.

Systems for Life and Death

We had a whole system for packing parachutes and we also had a daily quota. The parachute was laid out on a long table and you had step by step process to follow. At certain times in the process you had to stop and allow someone, usually a senior officer to check your work. At the end of packing each and every parachute they would check your work once again and both you and your checker would sign the parachute log book.

This process gave taught me two things. First it instilled an attention to detail and second it taught me to rely on systems.

Attention to Detail

I’ve learned since then that in business having an attention to detail is critically important. There’s a trap here, there is an attention to detail that stops you from shipping your product or taking action, that can be devastating to your business. I’m talking about having an attention to detail on the things that matter and that make a measurable difference.

In packing parachutes there was one part where you used two hook type tools to wrap the lines across the parachute bag. If you forget and left these hooks in the parachute it would almost guarantee that the person using the chute would have a really bad day. That would have been a big detail to miss, but what about small ones?

Steve Jobs Attention to Detail Example

Recently on Google+ Vic Gundotra shared a story of when he received a phone call from Steve Jobs on a Sunday morning. Steve was concerned about how the Google logo looked on the iPhone and wanted to work with Mr Gundotra to get it fixed. If Steve Jobs was concerned with the gradient of yellow in the Google logo are there things in your business need the same attention to detail? Would it make a difference in your business? I’ve asked myself the same questions and found that typically there is.

The Creation of Systems

The other important thing I learned was that you live and die by your systems. I’ve found that many people resist systems, especially small business or solo-entrepreneurs. I think there is a switch inside us that tricks us and convinces us that things can be put into a system. Or we feel that a system has to be this big 3 ring book of boring copy and processes that make run for the hills.

Here’s a System to Instantly Make Your Business Better

I was listening to a recent episode where Andrew Warner interviewed founder Dan Maxwell. He mentioned a great system (he learned from information marketer Eben Pagan) that he uses for the first 30 days of working with a new developer. Every single day he asks new developers to answer a set of questions that he keeps in a shared Google doc.

These questions are a system, a system to build a working relationship and a system that allows him to find the best of the best of developers. I also think these 4 questions could be used for anything in your business. They are…

  • How many hours did you work today?
  • What did you accomplish today?
  • What problems did you encounter?
  • What questions do you have for me?

These 4 simple questions answered at the end of the day are a system. If you break them down you’ll also find that it will help you create a very efficient process for getting things done.

2 Critical Elements to a System

There are 2 critical elements to any success of a system for your business.

  1. Is the system written down?
  2. Is the system followed?

You and key people might have the system memorized but ultimately having it written down ensures that knowledge can be passed along.

Special Note to Solo-Entrepreneurs

I have to make a special note to solo-entrepreneurs (we work with quite a few). I know sometimes you resist this process and systems. You say you don’t have time and it’s only you in your business—well writing down your processes and systems will help you in two ways.

First, it allows you to really think through what it is you do and improve upon it. It also will focus your mind on how you spend your time and effort. After a short time of doing this you’ll notice that you will improve some systems, you’ll gain more time, and become more efficient. That’s a huge promise but I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

The Parachutes in Your Business

We all have parachutes in our business. These are things we strap on our back that we hope will work once we exit that plane. You’ll jump out of that plane in your business a lot more confidently when you know that you’ve instilled an attention to detail and followed a proven system.

Here’s what I suggest…

Take a few minutes and write down the things in your business you can put into a system. What are those things you do that could be more efficient?

The attention to detail is a bit harder. Here you have to find the things that if you had a greater attention to detail would have a huge impact on your business. Sometimes you know these things because they are the stuff that trips you up often, other times it’s digging a little bit deeper.

When you define both your systems and your critical attention to detail items a couple things will happen. You will become better and better at what you do and you also will save time and energy on that frees you up to do more of the things you enjoy.