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Leaders, Do You Have a Broken System? Look in the Mirror First!

January 24, 2018

I had an ‘aha’ moment this week that has kept my head buzzing. If you are familiar with W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, you likely have heard his famous quote, “94% of problems in business are systems driven and only 6% are people driven.”

If you can get behind this idea that problems are predominantly systems driven and not due to employee sabotage or general laziness, then where do we start when we find our organization struggling or missing out on an opportunity?

As I see it, there are three places we can begin our quest for answers.

  1. External Environment - Has the world around us changed?
    • Are customers going to the competition because they’ve found ways to speed up the product development process - getting innovative products out faster?
    • Are regulators demanding new and different reporting that our current systems are not set up to deliver without tremendous manual intervention?
  2. System Maps – Are there fundamental design and/or execution flaws in one or more of our business systems?
    • Do we have systems that compete with or work against each other rather than complement each other? (ex. Sales systems based on team performance, but compensation systems based on individual contributions)
    • Is there variability in the system? Why does it exist? How can we make it better? (ex. Why do we hand off a client file up to six times to process a single request?)
  3. Leadership – Are we consistently holding people accountable for working on and within the system(s)?
    • Do we encourage workarounds when it is convenient or ‘easier’ for us?
    • Are we willing to call out bad behaviour or invest in fixing systemic issues?

Here’s what I’ve come to know. If we can’t completely blame the environment, we often look for a new ‘system’ to help us get better in a specific area of business (ex. Continuous improvement, customer relationship management, project management, innovation, etc.). Assuming you clean up the systems so they are pristine and better fit the environment in which your organization finds itself, that is not enough. Leadership is key. Good leaders can get you decent results without a system. Trying to put a new system in place in the hopes that it will ‘cover’ for poor leadership is a mirage. So, here is my ‘aha’ realization of the week. Leadership is not external to systems, but an integrated component of systems.

We tend to think of leadership as overseeing systems from the outside in (our job titles are no help with that – ex. Business Development Manager). That view allows us to falsely believe that because we are external to the ‘system’ we lead, our actions and behaviour don’t impact what happens inside the system. However, if we tolerate or even encourage, workarounds within systems, we are creating variability – the thing that kills system effectiveness and efficiency. I’m not advocating that systems be so tightly defined that there is absolutely no flexibility. That would be foolish. Systems need to allow for application of judgement and creativity where it is appropriate to deliver products, services and results.

If we can’t communicate the vision or outcomes we are needing out of the system, employees don’t know how to function in the system. Shame on us.

If we are part of the C-Suite or executive team and are allowing this behaviour within our ranks, the impact felt down the organization is exponential. As a mid-level manager, I may be able to create ripples in one or two systems, but as an executive, my actions (or unwillingness to take action) can create complete havoc on multiple systems.

So, next time you find yourself needing to get at the root cause of a systems problem in your organization, look in the mirror first to ensure your behaviour (or lack thereof) is not the biggest contributing factor. If you find yourself facing a hard truth, take a step back, consider your actions/options, and make a change. If you don’t know how to change, seek out leadership training. The only thing you have to lose is a broken system.

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