Fix Processes Instead of or Before Blaming People

As a federal employee who has both managed people and is currently certified by the Air Force as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, I found this article very interesting: A Total Shift in Mindset

How often do we instinctively blame people instead of find out what broke down in the process leading to the mistake attributed to them? As a former supervisor, I totally grasp the truth that there are poor performers in need of disciplinary actions at times. We as managers should take action when people truly perform poorly. However before assigning blame, using Lean thinking we should ask ourselves the following questions (to start):

  • What is the process? Do all stakeholders in the process know the process? How is it defined?
  • Where did the process break down? How do we know the process is breaking down?
  • Where did communication gaps occur and feedback loops not exist?
  • How does anyone working in the process (to include management overseeing the process) know on a continual basis that the process is working or not working?
  • How can we as an organization learn from mistakes to improve future performance?
  • How can we as an organization create a climate where “red is welcome” instead of feared? Toyota gets suspicious if they see managers report status of processes as continuously green. They want people to show process status as “yellow” or “red” because that means that opportunities for continuous improvement exist.

If more federal managers thought along these principles and acted accordingly, process improvement would become the cultural norm and organizations would become learning organizations instead of compliance organizations.

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Samuel F Doucette

Dannielle, thanks for supplying the link. Being new to this blogging thing, I had thought I pasted it correctly into the field.

The whole issue has been a soapbox of mine for awhile. Working in a military organization, the tendency to “blame people first” is strong, especially when an inspection has just been run and the unit gets a score other than Outstanding or Excellent. But, since most people don’t come to work thinking “How can I screw up today”, then usually errors are occurring due to broken (or worse, unknown) processes.

Peter Sperry

Unfortunately process redsign has all too often been used to avoid unpleasant confrontations with people who cannot or will not do there jobs. I have lost count of the times an organzation with a simple, easily understood, easily implemented process reponded to a negative event, IG or GAO finding by launching a multi year, multi million dollar process redesign, when the simple fact of life was that 1-3 people had failed to comply with existing process directives. The entire organization gets put through turmoil. Scarce time and money resources are diverted to pay consultants conducting group hug sessions. Interdependent systems may have to be redsigned as well to match the new processes. And when it is all over, the same 1-3 people who could not or would not follow the old directives are no more willing to follow the new ones.

Take the time to identify the real source of the problem before bringing in the consultants and putting your entire team through a long painful redsign process. Lean Six Sigma is a hammer forever in search of a nail. It works well in a few applications but is grossly overused. Sometimes the best solution is simply to identify the compnent which is not working as required and replace it with one that will.

Samuel F Doucette

Peter, thanks for your thoughts. As I mentioned in my post, supervisors must deal with poor performers. On that, you and I agree. However, my point was for supervisors to take a step back and ask whether the process itself might be broken as well as the people not performing. More importantly, to ask themselves whether all of the people know the process and the key performance indicators that the process should be tracking in order to hold themselves accountable for successful performance of the process.

What you describe about the horrors of consultant overreach and organizational over-reaction to negative events are well taken. I know the Air Force, like any large bureaucratic organization, often does this. However, if used properly, process improvement problem solving tools can be effective without the horrors you mention. Lean Six Sigma is both a philosophy and tool-kit that, like anything else, isn’t the be-all, end-all, but if used properly sure can help with the solution. Unfortunately, improper use of the philosophy and tools has given a bad name to it. I’m sorry to hear you had a bad experience with it.