People vs. Process


You hear about this kind of thing all the time in sports – a team does badly, so you fire the coach or the GM or both. What about in business? How many times have you come across situations in which something appears to be terribly wrong in an organization, and the solution is to replace the people – whether the executive, the managers, or the staff – and yet the problem continues?

Sadly, it happens all too often even though conventional wisdom holds that it’s usually not their fault. In fact, W. Edwards Deming, famed statistician and father of modern quality methods, once said that you can put a good person in a bad system, and the system will win every time. He went so far as to say that only 15% of the performance of a system is within the individual’s control.

So why are the people blamed for poor processes?

Wet Noodle Policy

In a recent interview with a group of employees at one of our clients’ offices, a frustrated manager referred to some office policies as “Wet Noodle Policies”, and indicated that they (the policies) were vague, poorly designed, inconsistently applied, and caused poor performance.

Wow. Was he saying that poor performance was not the fault of the people in the organization?

“People get it!” he said, referring to the need to be more efficient. “Processes inhibit it!” In his office, the people are often blamed for poor processes. Click to Tweet

The thing is, even considering HR processes that can be painful, it’s often easier to change the people than the processes. To do an in-depth process review can be a lengthy project depending on how radical a change is required, and organizations are understandably be apprehensive about that kind of an undertaking.

Forward-thinking organizations are those that do it anyway, and thoroughly review their processes on a regular basis.

How to Tell if it’s the People or the Process

Although we are big fans of process mapping, and highly recommend it as part of any process review, there are a few things you can do if you’re not sure where to start:

  1. Look at your performance metrics and standards. What? Don’t have any? Well there’s your first clue that process is a problem. You should have very clear goals and objectives for every process, and they should be communicated, visible, and reviewed on a regular basis. If people are held to certain standards, they will fix broken processes  because they are barriers to their personal success.
  2. Ask the people. Pull together a focus group and ask them what’s going off the rails. Interview some key people one-on-one. You’ll soon find out if certain names keep popping up, or if people keep referring to policies, rules, or processes that are broken.
  3. Envision Utopia. If you could start from scratch, what would the process look like? Now think of what’s in the way of doing things that way. Is it people? Is it policies and rules? Is it confusion?

Tell us your people vs. process story! Give us a shout via Twitter @whiteboardcons using #betterfastercheaper or email us at

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Until next week!