As I wrote about the accountability mess, a good person in a bad system or process sets that them up for failure — and blame. “The 85/15 Rule” emerged from decades of root cause analysis of service/quality breakdowns. About 85% of the time the fault is caused by the system, processes, structure, or practices of the organization. Only about 15% of the breakdowns can be traced back to someone who didn’t care or wasn’t conscientious enough.

Harvard Business School Professor Ted Levitt, a leading research and author in management, marketing, and former editor of Harvard Business Review, said “Early decline and certain death are the fate of companies whose policies are geared totally and obsessively to their own convenience at the total expense of the customer.”

Three Key Systems That Block or Boost Effectiveness

Countless daily processes, procedures, and tasks are subcomponents of key systems. These core systems either boost or block performance. An organization’s systems are the outcroppings of the organization’s bedrock values and culture.

Many systems make it harder to serve customers or serve the servers in the Customer-Partner Chain. In production environments, many systems are obstacles to improving productivity, safety, or quality.

1.  Organization Structure Limits or Liberates Performance

Systems thinking looks at an organization as a whole, rather than a grouping of departments and units. Wholistic approaches focus on interconnections and cause-and-effect relationships.

That’s not what happens in most organizations. Functional or departmental silos managed by a management hierarchy create a top-down pyramid. And like the pyramids, that structure is a good resting place for the dead!

In vertically managed organizations, individual departments work to optimize their own internal efficiency. Goals, objectives, measurements, and career paths move up and down within the narrow, functional “chimney walls.” Functional managers and their teams are accountable, rated, and rewarded for doing their own jobs inside their siloed segment of the production, delivery, or support process.

Most good performers, in a poorly designed structure, produce the results shaped by the structure. As engineer and co-founder of the Center for Systems Awareness, Peter Senge, said in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, “Structure influences behavior. When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.”

Many organizations induce learned helplessness. People in them become victims of “the system.” They have little control over their work processes, policies and procedures, technology, support systems, and the like.

These feelings of powerlessness are often amplified by a performance management system often punishing people for behaving like the system, structure, or process they’re boxed into. “Empowering” helpless people without changing the processes, structure, or systems they work in, is worse than useless. It increases on-the-job quitting/retirement, cynicism, and disengagement.

2. Systemic Epidemic: HR Systems Reflect Leadership Values

Many HR systems control and enforce rather than coach and enable. The differences flow from the leadership team’s values and assumptions about people. Are people “headcount” to be managed as assets wrapped in skin? Is the team managing human capital or leading people?

The most effective HR leaders are valued advisors and key members of the leadership team. Despite attempts to “rebrand” HR with titles like “HR Partner,” most HR professionals are transactional administrators, not strategic leaders. The leadership team often sees HR as a constraint on their operations or not effectively serving their needs.

A few years ago, an issue of Harvard Business Review featured a bomb with a burning fuse on its cover and the proclamation, “It’s Time to Blow Up HR and Build Something New.” In one article, “Why We Love to Hate HR…and What HR Can Do About It,” Wharton School professor, Peter Cappelli, provides five “basic steps HR leaders can take.” You can read his steps rewritten with a few key questions I’ve added to help HR leadership here.

Four vital HR systems and practices that need to be especially reviewed for how they’re helping or hurting are performance management, promotions, training and development, and culture change.

3. What’s Your OS (Operating System): Is Technology Supporting or Controlling?

Decades of evidence show that treating people like humans, not technology — so-called soft skills — builds a much healthier, safer, engaged, service-oriented, higher quality, and profitable culture. BUT…many of today’s fastest-growing organizations use artificial intelligence, algorithms, and machine-learning optimization to throw us back to the dehumanizing practices as shown in the classic factory scene from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie, Modern Times.

In the 1950s, American writer, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano: America in the Coming Age of Electronics, foresaw the negative impact technology might have on quality of life. His depiction of how automation can dehumanize is both a look back and a look forward. He writes, “If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people always getting tangled up in the machinery…the world would be an engineer’s paradise.”

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM) are vital to our economy, climate, health, and well-being. These fields are largely responsible for humankind’s rapid progress in the past two centuries. STEMM will play a major role in determining our future trajectory in dealing with humanity’s biggest problems.

So, weak STEMM leadership effectiveness is especially critical. Zenger Folkman’s comparative analysis of over 70,000 360 leadership assessments shows that STEMM leaders are less effective. They often overvalue technology and undervalue the huge impact of leadership and culture.

Who Are Your Systems Serving?

Ineffective systems are often the scar tissue of past mistakes. Something goes wrong, so a manager puts a control policy, procedure, or process in place to prevent this from happening again. When added together, each rule, regulation, and directive from the “adminisphere” forms a bureaucratic bramblebush. During labor disputes, for example, “work to rule” will severely slow down or shut down the organization.

The fundamental leadership question is — for whose convenience are your systems designed? Most team members and customers would shout in unison: “You’re designed for the convenience of you and your management team.”  Many organizations are hard to do business with and hard to work for.

Are your systems raising or reducing your organization’s effectiveness? How do you know?