Everyone is responsible for their systems

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on May 19, 2010 · 11 comments

In the lean mindset, there is generally an intent to show respect for people, to blame the system instead of the individual, and give people what they need to be successful. But how far should we go to avoid blame? Who is ultimately responsible for the system that generates the results? Must we go all the way to the CEO? What about the board of directors?

A couple of months ago (since it’s date stamped, I can’t hide how long this has been in my queue), there was a brief chat on Twitter amongst a few of us about where manager responsibility lies in terms of bad systems and bad results. Here is a little snapshot of that conversation.

twitter conversation.tiff

My view is this: everyone has some control over their part of the system.

I believe we (meaning lean thinkers) send blame up the organizational chart too far, as a natural reaction to too much blame being pushed down on people in traditional organizations. As we say, bad systems beat good people. But who is designing the system? The system can be the process by which incentives are established or how new customer orders are set up. All of these are made up of activities, connections, and flows.

Managers at every level have an impact on those systems. A front-line manager can’t pull the same levers that the CEO can. But at the same time, the CEO can’t pull some of the same levers that a front-line manager can. Everyone is responsible for the system that they find themselves in. My advice is as follows:

1. Don’t be the victim – focus on the part of the system that you can influence. In the very first class of the Lean Experience, we had two supervisors from a large agricultural equipment company who said “I’m just a supervisor, I can’t change the company.” No, but you can help the 11 people that you’re responsible for. And you can connect to the supervisor who supplies you and who you supply. And they can connect to their customers and suppliers. You can do more than you think if you focus on what you can control and influence.

2. Focus on the system – maybe someone did screw up, and removing them is the easy response. But the system is what allowed and enabled those mistakes. This makes the change sustainable.

3. Know the open-space in the systems you are given – not all the systems will go your way and will help you. But there is white-space within those systems. As an example of what I mean, one group was feeling trapped by the structure and forced-ranking of the annual performance review. There was no way they were going to change that. But the white-space allows you to freedom to how you use that system. They could rank people by how good a team player a person was. They didn’t have to accept the system driving individualist behavior while they were trying to build a team culture. Every systems has white-space, so use those degrees of freedom to make the changes you need.

Don’t jump to blame. First blame the system. But don’t remove accountability in the process. “It’s not my system” is not a valid argument for bad performance. “The system is broken, I will fix it” is a much better response.


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