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by Jim Hudson

If you’re in the business of organizational change (which you are if you lead anything in today’s rapidly evolving world), the ability to recognize the symptoms of a bad system is an important skill to have. Regardless of the amount of thinking that went into building an existing managerial system, your job as a leader and a change agent is to notice anytime one part of the system is causing sub-optimized results to occur.

What’s a managerial system? In short, it’s the backbone of “how we get things done around here.” Managerial systems are the procedures and processes that are in place, the organizational structure for overseeing those processes, and anything else related to how resources, time and people are expected to be used.

And what’s a suboptimized system? That’s any system that produces inefficiently or ineffectively, arising from a lack of focus, unengaged participation and/or a reduced level of output. Suboptimized systems usually occur because of a lack of systems thinking, or the implementation of inadequate thinking.

Recognizing “The Biggest Symptom”

Probably the easiest and most important way for you to recognize sub-optimized systems, is to “see and hear” the actions and/or words that presume a fix them” mentality. This simple mental model is responsible for 95% of the headaches an organization may be experiencing with their change initiatives.

A “fix them” mentality presumes that individuals are to blame for problems that occur, and that they ought to be held accountable. If you hear leaders talk about accountability for problems, see it as a “really big, well lit” sign that you are dealing with someone who believes “people need to be fixed.” Similarly, when you hear someone wanting to find and punish the guilty parties, know that you are dealing with this mental model. And that doesn’t mean to blame managers who are doing it, it’s just a recognition of the fact that knowledge is needed and that your responsibility as a leader is to identify and “fill the gap” with good systems management principles.

Enter Dr. Deming

While there is nothing wrong with wanting to achieve and sustain higher levels of performance, systems thinking demands that you view the process itself as the culprit behind a problem, rather than the people who do the work. Blaming people usually shows up in previous efforts to fix an organization’s problems, and you can do some easy “detective work” to find the evidence. A quick peak at reports of an organization’s efforts to improve quality or safety normally yield the conclusion that “employees’ need to pay more attention” or “more training is needed.” Both of these conclusions presume that the employees are the root cause of problems, and that they need to be “righted in their ways,” so that the same things don’t happen again.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Those same problems that get solved under the assumption that people just need to do a better job, end up surfacing again and again, typically when time pressures are the highest. Real root causes of unexpected results are usually (over 95% of the time) the result of a bad process that is working exactly the way it is designed. This is called “process thinking” and it is the key message that Dr. Ed Deming, the management consultant who first advocated for systems thinking in business, enunciated throughout the late 20th century.

The Challenge You Face

In the old school, top-down, command & control management style (that all of us grew up with), subordinates are expected to do what leaders tell them to do. In this model:

1. the leaders are the thinkers

2. people are expected to follow procedures

3. results are what matter the most

4. people avoid failure at all costs

5. problems get solved by managers/specialists using complex methods

This old leadership paradigm states that management's job is to plan, organize, coordinate, command and then control. This model results in a blatant lack of ownership on the part of those who do the actual work. Like a herd of buffalo where the herd is loyal to one leader, people do exactly what they are told, to show their loyalty and commitment. And like a herd, they “wait around” for the next set of instructions, only doing what managers tell them, nothing more and nothing less.

The “fix them” mentality is a direct by-product of this old paradigm. Leaders seek to fix problems - including people problems. They do things to the organization, and the people in it. And in taking responsibility to fix the organization, the leaders remove that responsibility from the employees. What’s more, much of the leader’s self-worth comes from the actions they do to “fix” the organization, so there is vested emotional anchoring that invisibly influences any changes to “the way we do things.”

At the same time, some leaders can also display a victim mentality. Do you know someone who, when they don’t get the order, will blame the “dumb client?” Or a leader who, in the face of an employee not doing what they were told to do, blames the “dumb employee?” Perhaps you know someone who thinks suppliers are at fault when a shipment is late? These are all instances of “victimitis” that abdicate ownership of the problem.

And when leaders display this kind of thinking out loud, combined with the “fix them” mindset, they unwittingly create an entire organization of victims. Victims who won’t own their work; victims who blame other people for the lack of desired results; victims of the very system that they themselves actually have direct control over.

The sad fact is that in this traditional style of management, people are not responsible for their own performance — the boss is! The maintenance manager is in charge of making sure the equipment is maintained correctly. The quality department is responsible for the quality results. The shipping manager is responsible for the shipping. This responsibility can lead directly to a lack of ownership on the part of the person who is actually doing the work. And it is very hard work for the leader - giving all the orders and doing “the important work,” as it turns out, can take 12-14 hours a day.

Establishing The Gap

Not owning the problems because “it is management’s job” is one of the most important issues facing leaders today, as we move into the new era of advanced management technology. If you are involved in a managerial change transition, ask your clients’ if they are dealing with “an employee motivation” problem? Ask them if they see a gap between what they have now and what they know can be achieved -- what absolutely has to be achieved in order to survive/thrive in the next 12 - 36 months?

Their answers will usually point to a gap between what they want and what they have. Use this gap to point out that sticking to the old way is a big deal, but one that you can help them overcome. If the attitude is “we would be great if only they would stop messing things up,” use this as your launch point to discuss how you can help them. Many times people see what needs to be done, but can’t figure out how to do it. Confidently let them know that you have the right “step-by-step handrails” for them to get to where they want to be more easily.

Anytime you hear this kind of thinking or witness it, step in immediately and start asking questions that presume “the process is to blame.” Insure you paint a vivid picture of the results that are achievable when “authority is pushed to information” which is usually where the value is being created. And make sure to coach these leaders into their roles of mentorship around problem solving, instead of ownership of the problems. Leaders are there to “work on the system” rather than in it, and their primary goal is build the problem solving muscles of their teams.

Getting good at recognizing and intervening in this one mental model will put you well on your way to leveraging your presence, and the effects you have on the future of the organization. Like all good levers, your results will reverberate into every part of the work culture, just like the ripples of a rock dropping into a pond from up high. Be “The Rock” who leads organizations to world-class excellence in the shortest time and watch how quickly your reputation as “The Leader of Choice” grows throughout your industry.


Jim Hudson is a partner at Knowledge Strategies International, LLC an operations consulting firm specializing in The Invisible Change Method TM to achieve smooth organizational culture shifts that achieve sustainable world-class safety, quality and delivery.

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