"Fix" The System Rather Than The People

Let’s talk about management ROI—the return on investment you can expect from your management efforts.

What offers the best payoff? Experience proves that you’ll enjoy the biggest benefits when you focus on system changes, rather than trying to improve the various people who work for you.

Nobody’s arguing here against training. People definitely need coaching and development to make sure their skills measure up. The point we’re making is about leverage. About playing the odds. About investing management time and energy for maximum return.

Historically, managers are inclined to over-manage individuals and under-manage the environment in which they work. They spend too much of their time “fixing” people who really aren’t broken. They invest too little time fixing organizational systems that are broken.

The figures vary a little in different jobs, industries, and countries. But it’s argued that 80 percent of performance improvement opportunities are located in the environment. Chances are only 15 to 20 percent of the opportunities will be found in the area of skills and knowledge. Finally, you can expect fewer than one percent of performance problems to result from deficiencies in people’s individual capacities. The odds are overwhelmingly against the performer being the broken component of the human performance system. You seldom see a job performance “problem” that can be significantly improved by manipulating the skills and knowledge factor alone.

This is not meant to discount the value of training. It’s simply to bring home the critical importance of employing a systems approach to drive meaningful performance gains. After all, even talented and motivated people can improve organizational performance only as much as the business processes allow.

The dramatic performance breakthroughs occur when we concentrate on the system. When we shift our management focus from the individual’s efforts to organizational performance. This comes down to taking a careful look at how work gets done and how customers get served. It’s about managing the lateral movement across an organization as people perform a series of activities that accumulate to become a final output . . . a result. This is the horizontal system. This also is where the big problems—and great opportunities—hang out. Organizational performance usually depends most heavily on this particular environment—that is, on the effectiveness of the cross-functional processes.

This aspect of the system is what most needs and deserves management attention. As for the people, well, they need to manage themselves. They’re supposed to function as self-motivated, self-sufficient performers, people who take responsibility for their own results. Instead of spending your time and energy trying to supervise and control them, invest yourself in engineering powerful processes. That’s your best bet for enabling everyone to perform up to his or her true potential.

Managing the organization, in its truest sense, comes down to managing our processes. Day in, day out, making sure they’re performing up to their potential . . . constantly trying to make them even better . . . changing them as necessary to fit our rapidly changing world.