“The system must be held to account!”
How often do you hear that in the wake of the latest scandal?
Not that often. Usually, it’s “People must be held to account! / Who is responsible? / This must never happen again!” We have seen this predictable reaction to recent failings in policing, healthcare, education, social services and beyond. The clamour is usually followed by red-faced senior managers being duly wheeled out to limply trot out the phrase, “Lessons have been learned”.
But have they?
I don’t think so.
The problem is that the drive to find a ‘bad’ person to blame when something goes wrong ignores the fact that the overwhelming contributory factors in major organisational failings (and performance of course) derive from THE SYSTEM. (See the pie chart below, adapted from a previous blog post).
- If your system employs target-based performance management, people WILL concentrate on the areas subject to targets at the expense of other important activities, and they WILL engage in gaming to meet the targets.
- If your system encourages internalised competition between work units or individuals, they WILL try to out-do each other at the expense of the customer or service user.
- If your system does not afford frontline workers the autonomy to exercise professional judgment, they WILL behave like automatons that slavishly follow prescriptive policies, and this WILL increase risk.
- If your system relies on retrospective audit and inspection, people WILL concentrate on technical compliance at the expense of doing the right thing.
…Oh, and all of these things WILL occur despite the fact that the people involved are not ‘bad’ people. So now you know.
The system conditions listed above are consistently found at the root of major organisational failings. These failings do not occur because the people in these systems are necessarily ‘bad’ people; they are the inevitable consequences of dysfunctional system conditions that inadvertently encourage good people to do the wrong things.
Now I am not suggesting for a minute that those who go round committing criminal offences or morally reprehensible acts during the course of their duties should be able to use some sort of “It’s not me – the system made me do it” get-out-of jail-free card, but there’s a serious point here – a wide range of evidence points towards the types of system conditions outlined in the bullet points as being responsible for driving deviant behaviour within organisations. Simply assuming it must be a ‘people problem’ is like sacking the cleaner who is too slow to mop up a flooded floor, rather than fixing the leaky pipe. Address the cause, not the symptoms!
What’s more, merely admonishing or replacing those found responsible for engaging in behaviour that contributed towards organisational failings does not solve the problem. If the same system conditions persist after a major organisational failing, then there’s every likelihood that a similar catastrophic event will reoccur in future, this time involving different people. That should be a clue.
So what’s the solution?
Well, if you are a manager, it’s YOU! Deming pointed out that management bears the responsibility for improving the system. That’s also where you should start looking when things go wrong. Start holding the system to account. Don’t go barking up the wrong tree!
Therefore, if you recognise any of the features I have described in the bullet points as being present in your system, I suggest it would be prudent to tackle them now, before it’s too late.