One of the root causes of our accountability mess is looking for who, not what went wrong. This leads to a search for the guilty as the cause of breakdowns in customer service, quality, communication, teamwork, and the like. It becomes a hunt to fix the blame more than fixing the problem.

But those problems are often symptoms of deeper systemic issues. The fundamental leadership question is — for whose convenience are your systems designed? Way too many systems subvert rather than serve.

Shape Shifters: Systems Mold Performance Results

Managers who aren’t happy with the performance of people in their team or organization need to take a closer look at the systems they’re working in. Systems shape behavior and actions. Good people are often worn down — and worn out — by ineffective systems that don’t support their work, don’t maximize their efficiency or effectiveness, and make it difficult for them to do their job.

Even more damaging are systems that drive and reward counterproductive behaviors. One manager, for example, learned that their HR systems fostered “Asking for A while recruiting, selecting, training, promoting, rewarding, and recognizing B.”

Systems enslave or enable. Some extraordinary performers produce great results despite, not because of, the systems they’re stuck in. But most people can’t or aren’t motivated enough, to overcome or work around system blocks and barriers.

Common Symptoms of Systems Problems

Check how many of these points apply to your organization. Are you guessing, or do you have data-based feedback?

  ▢ Poor communication, cooperation, and collaboration.
  ▢ Technology incompatibilities and disconnects.
  ▢ Duplicate or disconnected records cause people to reenter data or piece systems together.
  ▢ Continuously recurring errors, complaints, abandoned purchases, or service breakdowns.
  ▢ Frustrations with policies/rules/complexity.
  ▢ Low system usage/compliance.
  ▢ Poor, confusing, or even conflicting performance data.
  ▢ Management/administrative reports that are unread or unused.
  ▢ Following all the rules and policies (work-to-rule) stalls or shuts down operations.
  ▢ Customers/partners bounced around and between departments.
  ▢ Consistent customer or employee dissatisfaction and frustration.
  ▢ Slow response times from support groups like HR, accounting, procurement, etc.
  ▢ Weak or even adversarial external technology supplier relationships.

Keys to Aligning Systems

Effective systems follow, serve, and support rather than control, direct, and dictate. Here are a few ways to ensure your systems facilitate rather than frustrate:

  • Design from the outside in by following the Customer-Partner Chain.
  • Always ask who this system is serving and continuously get their input on whether it’s meeting their needs.
  • Keep systems focused on serving customers and serving the servers.
  • Partner with those who use your systems and/or make them work.
  • Bring vendors and frontline teams together to develop systems that are “wholistic” and interconnected.
  • Ensure software, equipment, and external services serve and support your processes rather than dictating them.
  • Align your systems/structures to flow from and implement organizational vision, values, purpose, and strategic imperatives.
  • Regularly assess reporting requirements and forms to be completed. Many are huge timewasters producing useless or outdated measurements and reports.
  • Provide a single point of customer contact.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify…

Under Control: Ways to Design, Realign, or Refine Your Systems

  • Don’t automate complex, disjointed processes. That messes things up faster, wastes resources, and tangles everyone in knots.
  • Are your performance management and/or reward and recognition systems aligned for team or individual behavior? Is this consistent with your stated values and goals? How do you know?
  • Align technologies like electronic communications, websites/apps, call centers, production/delivery systems, etc., with customer needs and the processes that produce or support those needs. Involve customers and servers/producers in making sure the cart comes after the horse.
  • Make it easy and painless for customers/partners to provide feedback or raise problems. Develop a quick recovery system. Track complaints/problems to identify trends and find common causes. Focus on eliminating the root causes.
  • Charter system alignment teams like a “Dumb Rules and Forms Committee,” “Bureaucracy SWAT Team,” “defective tools brigades,” or the like to seek and destroy all the non-value-added work and ineffective tools/systems that are slowing things down and getting in everyone’s way.
  • Insist that managers or teams controlling key systems collect ongoing data and get regular feedback from the customers/partners their systems are supposed to serve, to see if they are.
  • Ask frontline teams questions like, “what’s the dumbest system/thing we do/have around here?” Get technicians to bring examples of the most defective systems/tools that are causing them the most problems. Trend their answers to develop a process for identifying and prioritizing systems to be realigned — with their help.
  • Give frontline servers/producers a process for tracking breakdowns/errors and systems to be improved. These should be compiled at a central source and analyzed for strategic system changes and improvements.
  • Look at each key system and ask, “For whose convenience was this designed?” If it’s not serving customers and/or servers/producers, it needs to be realigned.
  • Ensure that form follows function. Your systems and organizational structure should serve and support your key service/quality processes.
  • Are you structured around your products and services, around your management system, or around your customers and key processes? Do your customers think you’re easy to do business with? What would your frontline servers and support teams say? How do you know?

What’s the Point: Who’s Serving Whom?

A retailer turned around their stores profitability by flipping their head office-store relationship upside down. The store’s needs drove the key systems, processes, and support from head office. For example, anyone calling a store was required to ask, “Am I taking you away from a customer?” If the answer was yes, the caller arranged to call back at a more convenient time.

Too often systems are designed to meet management’s needs; to command and control. Need only do they make it harder for everyone to serve or be served, they also state; “we don’t trust you.”

What messages are your systems sending? Are they helping or hurting? How do you know?