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.

1 TrippBabbitt May 19, 2010 at 9:45 am


Interesting take, but I have to dissent. Once we start partitioning out systems we are back to Tayloristic functional thinking. With my Deming background, we tried this approach and it failed miserably. The whole white space, “do what you can” misses the whole point about our biggest opportunity for improvement . . . the design and management of the work. Unless management thinking doesn’t change too, the US will continue to fall behind.

Tripp Babbitt

2 Matt Wrye May 19, 2010 at 9:47 am

I couldn’t agree more. We should look to fix the process and not just hammer on people. But once we have seen the process is broke we can’t just use that as a crutch. It is no different then other crutches we hear (changeovers take to long or I didn’t have the right materials when I needed them). As lean leaders, what do we do when we here an excuse? The first thing is we try to empower the person to make a change and take away excuses. It should not be any different for us or anyone that is in a bad process.

I really like the point about focusing on what you can control. Your company doesn’t have to have a full commitment to lean (although that is nice). You can control your world of influence. When you make great changes and improvements there, you will get noticed. When you get noticed, share your thinking. This starts to turn the bigger process wheel.

We have to do something and not just be victims of a bad process.

3 TIm McMahon May 19, 2010 at 11:38 am

Most of us agree it is the system not the people. Respect for people includes educating and empower people to fix problems. The key I think is that we really have two choices: 1) accept the bad system and work within it 2) decide we must improve the system. We prefer the latter. We must first focus on a system that makes this possible. If this doesn’t happen nothing else matters.

Thanks for the insight Jamie.

4 Jamie Flinchbaugh May 19, 2010 at 11:45 am


That’s really the only point I’m making (you did it in less words): we can be a victim or we can do something about the system. So it starts with our attitude and thought process as we see problems.

In building on my front-line manager story, he’s not going to transform the company. If they have major problems, that’s not the answer. But it’s the answer if your in that role and that’s the extent of your influence.

5 Mark graban May 19, 2010 at 11:52 am

Jamie – great stuff. I like what you’re saying about taking responsibility for things in your scope and not being a victim. That said, I still believe that top leadership has a huge impact on the system and the culture in a company, so they are more responsible (hence their paychecks, right?)

Ah, Tripp – what are you talking about? A correspondent emailed me to let me know that your comment was incomprehensible (sorry, that’s a Seddon technique).

“Once we start partitioning out systems….” what do you mean? A systems thinker is complaining about someone writing about systems. Using another technique and phrase from your hero Seddon I’ll say, “you can’t make this stuff up!”

If you failed with Dr. Deming’s methods, does that then discredit Dr. Deming the way you “new systems thinkers” say lean failures (or “L.A.M.E.”) discredits lean?

6 TrippBabbitt May 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm


Let me simplify my response. What I am saying is that optimizing each piece creates sub-optimization. Everyone doing there best is not enough (Deming). Without changing management thinking we apply tools only to the front-line . . . this changes nothing.

The US approach to do the best you can in a bad system is alarming.

Lean discredits itself in the perpetuation of tools-based thinking and not recognizing the differences between service and manufacturing. I think Ohno would be disappointed.

7 TrippBabbitt May 19, 2010 at 12:40 pm


It’s less about the process and more about why the system behaves the way it does. Yes, you can and should fix the process if broken, but this is not a systemic or sustainable solution. The thinking is broken and we have to understand why the system behaves the way that it does or new rules, policies, standardization, edicts, etc. will wipe out all gains sooner or later. Deming told me that psychology was a large area for discovery in his System of Profound Knowledge, I believe John Seddon has provided an important framework on this front. It is what I believe Deming and Ohno challenged us to do is advance the thinking and not codify tools.

8 Jamie Flinchbaugh May 19, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Tripp, that’s actually a reasonably stated position and one I entirely agree with. Perhaps this is your first visit to my blog, but I (and we at the Lean Learning Center) have been about fixing the thinking since our inception. In fact, that’s why we started it, because we saw many lean people running around with tools without even knowing WHY they were using them. They were using them because they saw them at Toyota. Our “formula” if you will is that principles drive behaviors drive actions drive results. If you don’t fix principles – the thinking – you will have a short-lived success.

This blog post isn’t meant to sum up my whole thinking. I only wish I could get so clear as to summarize my thinking in one post. The point of this point is simply around accountability. We shouldn’t just sit still and tell ourselves “I’ll wait for the CEO to fix it.” That’s my point, and my only real point, in this post.

9 Daniel Markovitz May 20, 2010 at 12:57 pm


If you’re looking for concision, perhaps Ghandi will do: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

10 Jamie Flinchbaugh May 20, 2010 at 1:51 pm

That’s always been one of my favorite quotes.

11 Jackie Underberg May 21, 2010 at 9:50 pm

This is a very interesting discussion. We often speak about “senior leadership support” as being the critical factor in any change effort. I agree but it is often used as an excuse. I frequently hear, “top leadership does not support it.” Well, I feel that we all must work to influence our top leaders to drive change. It is a cop out to state, “top leaders don’t support, but I tried.” Ah shucks…

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