Things often do not go as we want them to. We don’t reach our objectives.
So we set off in search for the cure for our ills and in this quest we too often look for answers in the wrong place. We seem to be programmed to look for individuals who have not done their jobs as we have asked to do them and are the cause of our problems. In the search for individuals, we too often look in the wrong place for the way forward.

Organizational performance problems are often thought to be the outcome of individuals not doing their jobs well, not trying hard enough and not caring enough. This is a focus that is reinforced by our culture which glorifies individual success. And it is this perspective that can blind an organization from finding real and lasting solutions.

I learned this lesson painfully several years ago in my work at Jewish Community Center Chicago. Every month we sent out hundreds of bills to our members asking them to pay for the services we had provided. And every month, two days later our phone lines were busy with angry complaints. People were billed and dunned for services they had not received and payments that had been made were not being reflected properly. We had a big problem and we needed to look for a way to fix it.

Since we had a state of the art accounting system in place and a team of skilled accountants overseeing it, the obvious answer seemed to be that staff who were responsible for collecting and entering the information were at fault.
Reflexively we gave them more training, held them more accountable and even replaced those who were judged as low performers.

But inaccurate bills kept going out and angry calls kept coming in.

And then I learned a valuable lesson from one of those supposedly badly performing staff. At a meeting to convey how serious the problem was and to tell our front line staff that they had to do their job better or else, one young woman was brave enough to speak up. She told me that because we had bought the forms that were used to collect data from our participants in bulk (to get a good price of course!), they quickly became stale and when she received them they were unreadable. She was doing the best she could, but they were just too hard to read! The solution to this problem was obvious, and it was not about individual staff performance.

W. Edwards Deming, the man who defined Quality and brought Constant Improvement to our shores after a brief exile in Japan, powerfully underscored the importance of looking at the system within which we do our work rather than at individual performance. He ascribed as much as 94% of the performance problems we face as resulting from how we have designed our strategies and our work processes and only 6% resulting from employee performance issues! (Take a look at this video if you are interested in seeing how he illustrated this point:

Efforts to improve outcomes should be focused to looking for ways we can improve how we operate our organizations rather than on how individuals perform.

And often answers will come more from developing a culture of improvement which engages all of our key stakeholders including those closest to the “work” in an ongoing conversation about how we can do our work.
Changing the “how” will get us results; focusing on changing the “who” will keep us struggling.