Sunday, December 12, 2010

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. (-:


Unknown said...

So true. Excellent points. Yes, process is good, but good people are better. Classic example: travel guidelines. One person spends too much on a trip, and the company institutes a new travel policy. It's clear that most policies are to address one exception while penalizing the rest.

And yes please, let's fire those bad managers. Process won't do the job.

Bret Simmons said...

Dan, add to that the Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer line "the law of crappy systems trumps the law of crappy people."

Deming never said there was no bad employee. His point was simple: everything done at work is a process, all processes exhibit variation, most of the variation on performance of the process comes from the design of the system, not the performance of the people using the system.

the problem of course is that systems don't perform, people do, so the influence of the system is always manifest in an individual, and it's just easier to blame people than to fix complex systems.

BTW, Collins writes great books, but the "research" behind his "findings" was so flawed they can't be taken seriously. I'm so tired of hearing about that damn bus I could puke...

Thanks! Bret

Marc Effron said...

HI Dan -- I agree with your fundamental premise. Yet on the process side, the benefit of a simple, easy to use process (like I describe in One Page Talent Management) is that at least the process doesn't get in the way. Even brilliant people won't use a crappy process, and let's face it, when you ask executive about it they'll say most HR processes are crappy!

Sylvia Lafair said...

Excellent insights Dan. I do believe there are times it is impossible to change an employee to a good one. What I now teach is that "work is not a rehab facility"!! That helps the pleasers and rescuers think about the larger picture of the whole enchalada; how we impact each other. I find that if someone is unwilling to really look at the part they play in making relationships work at work they need to be "unhired" as soon as possible.
I do lots of presentations at SHRM programs and you are so right, even pre-happy hour they would agree that there is such a thing as a terrible employee.
Sylvia Lafair, author "Don't Bring it to Work"

Dan McCarthy said...

Steve -
Right, same thing for workplace internet policies.

Thanks, I like Sutton's stuff.
And thanks for adding some insight into Deming's intent.
I've heard that about Collin's research methodology too, but not too many will argue that his points are still good ones.

Marc -
Thanks, and I agree with your points 100%!

Sylvia -
Thanks, and I love that quote: "work is not a rehab facility"!!

Jim Taggart said...

Dan, for a moment I thought that was my Labrador Retriever, Max, tearing apart your couch.

No dissenting voice here. If recruitment is done carefully and new employees receive the needed coaching and leadership, then "bad" employees will be as scarce as hens' teeth. What is seen too often, especially in government, is poor managers being transferred out of a unit, only to wreak havoc in another.

One of my pet peeves is blaming the "system" for problems. We forget that the system is us - human beings with all their associated baggage.

Dan McCarthy said...

Jim -
LOL! "rare as hens' teeth"?
Thanks, and I love your last comment. Yes, there are often "causes" for poor performance... process, rewards, lack of skills, motivation, resources, etc.... however, some employees seem to be able to overcome these barriers and others end up as perpetual victims. I love Wally's line from Dilbert... "well, once again, you've failed to motivate me".

Derek Irvine said...

Dan, great post. It's "the chicken or the egg" in the workplace. I'm surprised there aren't more voices on the other side. I've certainly heard people argue the "processes" point firmly. I, however, fall solidly on the "people" side. People can be coached/trained/developed to improve/change bad behaviors, but only if the person wants that. New processes won't fix it. Thanks for the insight.

Marty Coyne said...

Getting the right people on the bus is critical. The biggest mistakes I have made over a long career is not putting my best people on the most important projects.

Stacey said...

Nice post... to bad we have too many "nice" managers who are afriad to deal with the bad dogs - now there is a trainer lesson I would love to see done well.

On the point about great employees trumping great processes though - this does bring up the great debate (at least around here) "why do some people get away with following the rules?" - While I agree with your post, it is a debate none-the-less.

Bohdan Rohbock said...

If your bus requires all 'A' players to function get a new bus, it isn't adding much as an organization.

There are bad employees and there are employees that will succeed no matter what. The other 60-80% of people are susceptible to being guided.

However, the idea of crafting an iron-clad policy or process because of a few idiots is ridiculous and should be avoided.

I will also point out that hiring the 'right people' is a process.

Rod Johnson said...

Maybe one of the biggest challenges is that getting rid of the bad/underperforming manager/employee is a process. And quite often, that process is totally broken - to a fault. And when a broken process interfaces with a bad employee - I think that too often leads to retaining the employee.

Interesting how broken & bad can lead to dysfuntion.

Dan McCarthy said...

Derek -
Right, I thought I would get more dissention as well. Thanks.

Marty -
Sage advice, thanks!

Stacey -
I assume you meant "not following the rules". I've heard that a lot too. I don't think we should let our best employees violate policy (like the travel policy mentioned earlier) - but I think they can earn more flexibility as to how they accomplish thier work.

Bohdan -
Right, hiring is a process, but with a lot of variation based on the skill of the manager.
I've heard the "20-70-10" percentage thing too. As a manager, why wouldn't I want to have a "80-20-0" % organization? I may not NEED all these top performers, but my organization will perform better if I do.

Rod -
Yikes, bad HR processes retaining bad employees/manangers. Sounds like a recipe for failure.

Joanne Eckton said...

You need a process so you know what kind of people you need to put in them. You may get lucky and hire the kind of people that excel no matter what, but those are few & far between. You need to figure out what skills/strengths you need and then put people with those skills in the right position.

Tanmay Vora said...

Excellent post.

Many years back, as an amateur practitioner, I believed that processes were a silver bullet that solves everything.

Many years later, I now believe that good people are at the core of any Quality Management System. Organizations need good people to deliver quality – process acts as a catalyst to drive the success and manage risks. People are always the strongest or weakest link in success or failure.

Processes should act as a tool and help people perform better.

Dan McCarthy said...

Joanne -
Makes sense. You need to figure hout what "great" is before you can hire those people. Thanks.

Tanmay -
Ah, the benefits of experience. We all had our favorite silver bullets. (-:

Jim Smith said...

I feel like emphasis of process problems really speaks more to extreme cases, but unfortunately managers sometimes zero in on this like it's the magic elixir for all their performance issues. Yes, great employees (and of greater concern "good" employees) will falter and fail in critically flawed systems, including systems deeply damaged by bad management and poor leadership, but if you don't start off with quality people capable of doing the work assigned to them and engaged enough to keep the process moving you will quickly find yourself dealing with such base employment issues (like attitude problems and attendance issues)that it will severely impede your businesses ability to function...regardless of the "mistake-proof system" you've carefully developed.
In response to the Jim Collins quote, I'll paraphrase a Quint Studer quote, "You'll never get EVERYBODY on the bus" make sure you have plans for addressing the rest.

Dan McCarthy said...

Jim -
Thanks. I have to say, this is my very first Quint Studer quote. I looked him up:
Who knew?

John Papers said...

This is amazing list like the previous one..
Thank you for sharing this good advice..

Diahann Boock said...

All interesting POVs and comments. Thanks!

Great employees will identify and fix a flawed process. Good employees will try to work within a flawed process. Bad employees will blame the process.

While I believe in hiring and developing great employees and managers, I'd like to see more employees and managers engage in honest self assessment and self-development. How many folks label themselves as bad, good or great, as appropriate?

My thought for today!
Diahann Boock

Dan McCarthy said...

Diahann -
I love your comment: "Great employees will identify and fix a flawed process. Good employees will try to work within a flawed process. Bad employees will blame the process."
So true.

Anoop said...

This post hits the nail on the head. I completely agree that regardless of structure of an organization, the employees constitute much of what the company is all about. Having "bad employees" does not only mean that a company is being unproductive with their resources (money especially), but also that it has "settled" for these employees when better ones were likely available during the hiring process. In the health care sector, this could not be more important -- those who are hired at all levels should not only be skilled, but sensitive to patients' needs.