Want Better Results? Build A Better System

Ken Miller has written a great book titled Extreme Government Make Over, which I am going to write about in a four part series of posts this week. Miller is the founder of the Change and Innovation Agency, a firm dedicated to helping government increase its capacity to do more good. If you are interested in improving how your government agency or department works, I encourage you to pick up Miller’s book.

In Extreme Government Makeover, Miller explains government like a house with many pipes hidden behind the walls out of view doing the important work that allows a house to function. As Miller puts it:

The pipes of government — our systems, operations, and processes — are a mess. They’re kinked up, rusted out, and about to burst. Ravaged by years of budget cuts, reorganizations, and half-finished technology projects, the systems of government simply don’t have the capacity to keep up.

Second, we’ve got mold. Everywhere. Moldy thinking. Old ideas about people and motivation. We’ve come to believe that the problems with government are “people problems” — that public servants are lazy, unmotivated, and need to be incentivized to do the right thing. Oh, we don’t say it that way. Instead, we call it “pay for performance” or we create competency models and performance development plans. But the message to employees is the same: Government will improve when you improve. This moldy view of people has given rise to the accountability movement. And just like real mold, this movement has spoiled the air, damaged the foundation, and is making everyone sick.

Miller argues that the problem with government is not employees but defective pipes (policies, procedures) that do not provide it the capacity to do everything its citizens require. The only way to address capacity issues with a water pipe is to reduce the amount of water coming in or to increase the size of the pipes. Neither of these options is realistic for fixing government pipes. However, there is a third option, that reveals itself when you rip out the walls, tear up the floors and expose the pipes. The third option is to straighten the pipes so that the system can better handle capacity.

Our hidden system of pipes is the culprit for government performance problems, yet we always blame people because we can see them. Systems are invisible and its hard to improve what you can’t see. Miller explains it as follows:

Because the people are what’s visible, they get most of the attention when it comes to improving government. We try to motivate them, incentivize them, train them, and change them. We want them to do more, and do it faster. We want them productive, smiling, and adaptable. As W. Edwards Deming, the grandfather of the quality movement, proved years ago, “Six percent of the problems we experience can be traced back to people. Ninety-four percent are inside the system.” The variation, constraints, and problems are in the pipes.

The fact that government costs too much, takes too long, and accomplishes too little, are capacity issues. These are pipe issues. We have to straighten the pipes to speed the flow and we will get more done without additional resources. Our results come from our systems. If you want better results, build better systems.

As Miller states: The hallways of government are rife with mold. You can’t see it — we’ve wallpapered over it with vision statements, mission goals, customer-service policies, and employee-of-the-month plaques. But it is there, fouling the air, sickening the family, and destroying the energy and vitality of public service. How do you know if your agency has a mold problem? Check the symptoms: Low morale Poor customer service CYA Silo mentality or turf wars Slow processes Few innovations or ideas Constant complaining Apathy High absenteeism, grievances, and turnover Rampant distrust (of employees, customers, and management)

The fear is on the face of the frustrated worker who takes all the blame for the policies but lacks any power to change them. The fear sits in every question on the twenty-page form the customer must fill out, the one that culminates in the signature block filled with menacing legal threats. Everything about the place just screams “no can do” and “you’d better not.” And those are just the visible symptoms.

Want better results? Build a better system.

Do you agree with Miller that focusing attention on employee performance to improve results is the wrong approach? If you want better results do you need to build a better system?


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