Why A Bad System Will Beat A Good Person Every Time - GoLeanSixSigma.com

“The work of government is noble. The people of government are amazing. The systems of government are a mess.” – Ken Miller, Author of Extreme Government Makeover

In the book, Extreme Government Makeover, the author, Ken Miller likens government systems and processes to an old house in need of remodeling.

When you lift the flooring and take a closer look at how things are operating, there are severe plumbing issues. The pipes are twisted into knots and they aren’t big enough to meet the demand. After years of neglect, patch jobs and re-work, the pipes have capacity issues.

Leaky Pipes Encourage Mold

Not only that, but now there’s mold. Mold is the analogy for old management philosophies – moldy thinking about people being the problem instead of the systems. Mold flourishes in the hallways of government.

Mold is the analogy for old management philosophies – moldy thinking about people being the problem instead of the systems. Mold flourishes in the hallways of government.

Miller says, “The systems of government – the pipes – are a mess. They’re kinked up, by decades of specialization, reorganizations, cover-your-a** (CYA) efforts, cost-cutting and abandoned technology projects. They’ve been outsourced, in-sourced, down-sized, right-sized, and zero-based budgeted. And now, they’re so twisted and slow, they make a silly straw look efficient.”

Blame the Process, Not the People

Government workers are victims of poorly designed processes and, unfortunately, have to work in them everyday. We should feel sorry for them, but instead we blame them! What would you do if you were blamed for a process you didn’t design, were forced to work in, and had little control over changing? Think about how much process design impacts productivity. If you put a good worker up against a bad process, who will win? Will it be the worker or the process?

What would you do if you were blamed for a process you didn’t design, were forced to work in, and had little control over changing?

W. Edwards Deming, a statistician and expert that many consider a Grand-Daddy of quality says, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” The worker may “win” in the short-term with concerted effort, but eventually the worker will be worn down by poor process design.

90% of problems are system-related and only 10% of problems are people-related.

90% of problems are system-related and only 10% of problems are people-related. However, many view it as just the opposite. Only 10% of the time do we look at the system, and 90% of the time we want to blame the workers regardless of who designed the process..

In his book, Miller’s improvement options are:

  1. Increase the size of the pipes
  2. Reduce the amount of water running through the pipes
  3. Straighten the pipes by applying process improvement

There are many government organizations attempting Option 3 and embarking on a Lean journey to straighten out the pipes of government processes. If they choose to fix the “plumbing” I tell them to roll up their sleeves because it’s hard work.

Encourage & Empower

I’ve seen what these workers face first hand. It can be very difficult to maneuver through the ancient infrastructure of bureaucracy, understand the customers of each and every process and meet customer and stakeholder requirements. This requires an investment in people; encourage them to learn and apply process improvement skills, give them time to analyze and redesign the processes and, finally, allow them to execute change.

In addition, government workers have something else hanging over their head. If you make a mistake you could end up in the newspaper as another example of poorly spent taxpayer dollars. The message here is, “don’t take any risks.” No wonder it’s difficult to change anything!

Despite the risk and the odds, government workers are successfully straightening the pipes. It takes courage each time a government employee applies process improvement. And with every small success courage grows. I have seen government employees achieve amazing success, from staggering reductions in permit cycle times, to placing foster children in homes faster, to saving lives. This is one of the reasons why improving government processes is so rewarding.

Building a Brighter Tomorrow

Even though reading the news makes it seem like government is laying more outdated plumbing, I’m hoping that with increased application of the Lean Six Sigma toolkit, one day Americans will feel differently about government workers. There are good things happening right now in city and state governments all over the country.

As Ken Miller says, “The work of government is noble. The people of government are amazing. The systems of government are a mess. Let’s work together to make them great.” Amen.

What can you do? Recognize the good people in government. Acknowledge the good work and the improvements they have the courage to make happen.

Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner & Executive Advisor at GoLeanSixSigma.com. For almost 20 years, she's helped leading organizations like Washington State, Cisco and GE build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.