Focus on the Process, Not the People

Jimmy L. Smith, Jim Smith Quality

Nearly all organizations set performance targets for departments and/or individuals to conduct their operations and deliver products and services to their customers. Although managers attempt to ensure their processes can handle all the different issues that may arise in their business, these processes often fall short of being able to handle all the different variations that exist in today's complex world.

When results don’t meet the targets set forth by management, organizations typically concentrate on placing blame by asking what people should do better or wanting to know who didn’t do what needed to be done to achieve better results. Focusing on what people can do better and how they can enhance performance or efficiency often results in short-term improvement, but with diminishing returns. Eventually, people run out of ideas, and repeated discussion about failed targets can demoralize even the most loyal employee.

Quality experts like Drs. Joseph M. Juran and W. Edwards Deming stress that the vast majority (85 to 94 percent) of the time, the answer is that it’s management's fault. They find the processes or systems in place are not up to the task of handling all the variations that exist in today's business climate, and as a result, managers have not enabled the organization to continuously improve its processes.

The most successful organizations, however, often have managers who understand that the problem is not people failing to deliver, but that their organizational processes or systems need to be improved. This is where management focuses their continuous improvement efforts, and enlightened managers encourage the organization to identify shortcomings so they can be addressed.

If an organization really wants a continuous improvement effort focused on improving its business, it must celebrate the mistakes and errors that result from inadequate processes or systems so they can be analyzed and corrected. Enlightened organizations don't look for someone to blame; they identify the problems that inevitably arise and encourage their people to expose these issues, rather than cover them up.

In organizations where people are blamed for these variances, there is a culture of "hide it and protect yourself" to guard against blame and potential disciplinary action. Instead, there should be a culture of exposing these variations from expected results so the business process can be improved to prevent future occurrences of the same issue. In a blame culture, these variances will continue to occur due to the inadequate process, and people will continue to bury the issues rather than expose them so they can be fixed permanently.

At one company, the senior manager’s monthly metrics meeting typically involved arguments and blame when targets weren’t met. The senior quality engineer, in charge of creating the metric charts, added statistical control limits to the charts and immediately, senior management, who understood the concept of variation as applied to manufacturing, understood that variation also affected business metrics. These meetings transformed into sessions devoted to what was needed to reduce process variation, and the atmosphere became conducive to continuous improvement.

Organizations need to have a culture that encourages people to elevate process issues when they arise, rather than trying to hide them to protect themselves from blame. Managers must treat variances from expected results as valuable pearls of opportunity that allow the organization to improve, instead of costly errors that "somebody" made. Managers have to ask themselves, "Do I want a culture of blame and cover-up, or one of problem identification and resolution?" Leading organizations take the latter path and constantly work to identify problems. At the same time, they encourage their organizations to use continuous-improvement tools and techniques to make their processes more robust and prevent future recurrences.

Instead of asking employees what they can do better, managers should ask how the organization can make the process better so the outcome is more predictable. The focus should be on the process, not on the people. If a process works well and makes sense in the context of people’s work, employees will function well within it.

The vast majority of people will contribute to positive outcomes if given a proper environment to do so. It’s far more productive to focus on streamlining and improving processes or systems than trying to get good people to work within a less-than-adequate one. The earlier scenario is motivating, while the latter is demoralizing. Constantly striving to identify shortcomings in business processes—and then having the entire workforce engaged and motivated to continuously improve them—will go a long way to ensure your business is a standout success. iBi

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