Great Employees Trump Perfect Processes

Those that preach and practice Process Improvement, Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, and Lean Manufacturing like to tell us that:

• “There is no such thing as a poor performer, there are only poor processes”;

• “Don’t blame the person, fix the process”;

• “Bad processes beat good employees”;

• “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners”. No, wait, maybe that’s from Cesar Millan, the Dog Wisperer. But it’s close.

Gurus like Deming and Juran say that process is responsible for anywhere from 80-95% of good or poor performance, with people making up the remainder.

With all due respect to these very brilliant men, as well as the rest of those in the Quality industry, my response to this, based on over 20 years as a practitioner in talent management and my own experience as a manager is….. really?! I mean, seriously!?

I’m sorry, but do anyone other than those that teach and sell this stuff, and maybe criminal defense attorneys, really believe this?

Here’s a way to test the validity of the “no bad employee” school of thought: get a bunch of HR people or managers together for happy hour, offer to buy the drinks, and start sharing “describe your worst employee nightmare” stories. Then, after you’ve heard about a dozen of these, test the theory. Say something like, “Well, you know, there really are no bad employees, only bad processes. Have you thought about doing some process improvement work?” After the laughter dies down, say “just kidding”, and quickly offer to buy another round, before they hang you up by your underwear.

I’m not just picking on misfit employees here. You can conduct the same experiment and substitute the word “manager” for “employee”, and get even more passionate responses. Yes, Virginia, there are some really bad managers out there, and no amount of “process improvement” methodology is ever going to make them effective. Good managers can develop into great leaders. Bad managers should be removed.

One of the most important lesson’s I’ve ever learned in leadership development is from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great – you start with getting the right people on the bus. Everyone else follows, i.e., strategy, structure, processes, and training. Without the right people – great, “A players”, the rest is doomed to failure. The same is true in talent management – selection trumps training every time. No amount of training will overcome a poor selection decision.

I’m not saying process improvement efforts have no value – I actually am a big proponent. Improving processes can streamline work, improve efficiency, and eliminate waste. However, it makes me crazy when an organization or team will spend hundreds of hours in meetings covering walls with post-it notes in order to design idiot proof “perfect processes”, when what they really should have done is just remove the 1-2 idiots and turn the rest of their employees loose. It’s a cowardly way to avoid dealing with performance issues at the expense of everyone else.

Great employees – and great leaders – don’t need to be spoon-fed and have their work spelled out in detail. They use their brains, creativity, and resourcefulness to find a way, innovate, and adapt. In reality, by the time some team gets done documenting the perfect process, the world around them changes and the process is outdated. Even brand new employees, if they really are good, will outgrow your 100 page training manual before you’ve had a chance to teach it to them. They may see things with a fresh set of eyes and bring even better ideas to the table.

The key to success is to hire and develop great employees (and managers) – then empower them to deliver extraordinary results. Yes, the lack of clearly defined processes and roles may trip them up now and then – but you need to trust them that they’ll figure out a way – they always do. I’ll take a team full or A players over a perfect process any time.

I suspect there may be some dissenters out there – I’ll publish all opposing viewpoints, as long as they are civil. (-: