How to Eliminate People Problems

Most of us who manage people, will have people problems.

Yet most of the things we identify as “people problems” are not. They’re systems problems.

Here are the five systems problems you must address in order to eliminate people problems.

  1. Define Good Work
  2. Examples and Templates
  3. Metrics
  4. Method
  5. Tools and Inputs

Let’s look at each. (To request the worksheet, go here.)

1. Define Good Work

When I was a busboy at age 15, nobody told me what a good job was. I was a heads-down, unmotivated drone. I only became a heads-up, highly motivated teammate when I figured out my job was to support the waitresses (by keeping tables clean and available for new customers) and to support the cooks (by keeping the supply of clean dishes large enough to handle any rush). Later I learned to make the dishwasher happy by consolidating the bus bins and lending a hand when needed.

Good work has a worthy purpose.

My friend Jonathon Hensley instituted the brilliant practice of having his people rotate at staff meetings presenting their own vision of what “good work” means. This puts each person on the spot a bit and invites multiple perspectives over time, and builds a group definition. It also on-boards new hires naturally. It builds buy-in — once you’ve publicly said what “good” means to you, your self-respect won’t let you fall below it.

As a busboy I had a conflict with a fellow busboy who was doing the job “wrong” in my opinion. He was just as sure I was wrong. Rather than an expensive conflict-resolution intervention, we both just needed a shared definition of “good work” from our boss and we would have been fine. (That’s not something I was equipped to create on my own at age 15.)

Without a shared definition of “good” your people cannot deliver good work consistently. With it, they can.

Show Examples of Good Work

It helps to show examples of good work.

The legendary Lynette Xanders teaches creative agencies to maintain a “Wall of Fame” of the firm’s best work as well as of work they admire, and a “Wall of Shame” of external work they feel is awful. The Toyota Production System calls for each worker to see examples of perfect finished assemblies, illustrating what “good” looks like.

These examples are a vital part of knowing what “good” really is. Are you giving that to your people?

Remind and Connect Workers with their Purpose

Good work has a worthy purpose, and workers need your help to remember it. When managers at US Steel took steelworkers to the bicycle factory where their steel tubes were made into bikes, those managers were helping those steelworkers see and feel the purpose of their work.

What You Can Do to Define Good Work

Start by inviting your people to share their thoughts about what makes work good. Listen deeply and seriously. Take notes. Don’t share any opinion or take sides or offer your thoughts, not at first. Once the boss has an opinion, all creative exploration ceases. Instead, sit in innocence. Guide your people over time to develop their own working definition of “good.”  You can guide things plenty well enough with questions like “What do our customers think is good?” and “Who are the customers for this work? Whom do we serve in some way?” Sketch out the diagram of the various customers.

Also, involve your people in finding or creating the examples. Display them prominently near where the work is done.

2. Make it Easy to do Good Work

At one firm, workers were trained to make dozens of products using parts kept in a bank of 80 plastic drawers. It was very easy to pull out the almost-right part instead of the right part, leading to errors or re-work or both.

Finally one worker created a big cardboard shield that covered all 80 drawers, labeled it with a specific product name, and cut out openings for just the correct parts (for that product) to be visible. This “jig” made it easy to see and find the right parts and impossible to grab the wrong ones. Making one such jig for each product, the workers sped up assembly time while simultaneously cutting errors and rework.

A digital agency found that half their projects lost money. An analysis of those projects found avoidable delays caused by internal and client-facing communications errors on four specific topics. The consultant who uncovered the four topics provided an email template that covered all four, and an acronym (“TWIST“) to make remembering the four easy. Within months the agency was reporting record profits, and nearly all projects were profitable.

Do you provide “jigs” and Templates that make it easy to do good work and hard to do bad work?

3. Provide Good and Useful Measures

Salespeople behind quota routinely offer outsize discounts to lure business in early, or when they’re ahead of quota may delay orders, all to serve an arbitrarily imposed number instead of the customer. CEOs and CFOs nudge revenue numbers around to please Wall Street at the expense of long term competitiveness. Call center staff are tempted to transfer callers to keep their call-times close to the arbitrary target, regardless of what’s best for the caller. Are you using measurements to inform workers, or do your measures distract them from creating value for customers?

Here’s how to know if a measure is “good and useful” — when you are doing the work, does this measure help you adjust your behavior so you do the work better next time? To be good and useful, the measure must be as close to real-time as possible, and must report on things the worker can control or influence.

Examples of good and useful measures: How close to the pin you are after your last putt; the size of each of the last five tips you’ve received; whether the wood you just sanded feels smooth to your hand. Each of these is immediately available and closely tied to the work you just performed. Each measure can — at least in theory — support you to adjust and improve your work.

Other measures are less useful for giving feedback on work.  Consider the Trauma Score. Doctors and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) use various sorts of Trauma Score to assess quickly where a given trauma patient should go — moderate scores can be handled by rural hospitals, while severe scores merit a helicopter flight to a Level One trauma unit at a big hospital.

Trauma Scores, while invaluable at routing a patient to the right care, are terrible for performance management. Yet hospitals and other medical providers constantly attempt to rate and rank EMTs and doctors on the outcomes of patients, based in part on Trauma Scores.

As Dr. Nicole Vanderheyden and I illustrated (in the Trauma Scoring chapter of Current Therapy of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care), that rating and ranking generates confusion and wrong thinking. For instance, a head trauma and an arterial trauma might both get the same top score for trauma severity, and both go to the same trauma unit. A year later the arterial trauma patient may have recovered 100% of their pre-injury function, while the head trauma patient will likely be a vegetable no matter what doctors do — because artery trauma and head (brain) trauma have completely different prospects for recovery. It is nonsensical — yet common — to rate or rank one EMT or doctor as better than another at achieving good patient outcomes, because one treated the artery trauma and the other treated the head trauma.

Good Measures are Connected to Purpose

This means Trauma Score is a highly useful metric in doing work, and nearly useless in assessing healthcare outcomes. The exceptions are “did we assign the right Trauma Score?” and “did we route the patient to the right hospital?” Both questions will use the Trauma Score metric, and will be useful questions to assess work and guide improvement. These questions connect the Trauma Score number with its purpose — routing patients correctly.

4. Establish a Method for Doing Good Work

Dr. Deming repeatedly asked “by what method” is management expecting the worker to perform good work? It’s vital for management — you — to take the lead in developing the method, the series of repeatable steps, by which good work is achieved.

This can be simple. As my hero Michael Auzenne recounted, when he managed gate guards at a secure high tech facility, he was able to boil their work down to two critical behaviors — to smile at their “customers” (the other employees being let in and out) and to be extremely prompt — senior execs wanting to enter at 6 AM were very grumpy if made to wait until 6:05.

The wise manager looks to the best workers doing the best work, and designs a method that incorporates their wisdom.

Empower Workers to Improve the Method

Then you’ll want to empower every worker to modify the method (in a methodical way, using the scientific method) to continually tweak it for improvement. When Sam Carpenter created his first method, for receiving client payments, it had 52 steps. He handed it off (and enjoyed near-flawless performance in an area that had previously been plagued with errors) and empowered his people in exactly that way. A few years later he went back and was delighted to discover his 52 step process was now 23 steps.

This sort of empowerment is NOT abdication — you don’t tell your people to do whatever they want or make uncontrolled changes.

The vast majority of “worker empowerment” initiatives fail because they don’t actually give the worker discretion and control within clear boundaries. Countless software tools are sold promising to create “empowerment” but only management — you — can give workers control over their work method.

Make Sure the Method is Documented

Document the method — use video and pictures, not just text.

Make Sure the Worker is Trained on the Method

It should go without saying, each worker should be trained. I suggest a certification system, and you may get value from a worker training wall chart. That way workers know who knows what methods well, and it serves as a reminder to them to ask for more training and to seek certification.

Can a Normal Person Use the Method?

Be sure that a normal average person can use the method to deliver excellent results. If only a few exceptional people can make the method work, you may need a better method (and perhaps better tools and templates) or this may be a special case where you must select carefully for the exceptional characteristics needed. If so, document those characteristics and your selection method.

5. Ensure Tools and Supplies are of Good Enough Quality

Finally, make sure that the inputs to the process (parts and supplies), and the tools for following the process, are good enough quality to support excellent work. Workers can’t fix this, only management can. This includes upstream inputs from inside your organization.

For example, if front line call center workers mislabel trouble tickets, downstream technicians will struggle to deliver good service. Fix the upstream process.

There’s a reason why workers feel frustration, even rage, when they aren’t given what they need to succeed. People like to do good work. They want to do good work. Let them.

It’s your job as a leader to ensure each worker has the inputs required for success.

Systems Fixes Eliminate People Problems

By now you’ve likely eliminated 80-90% of your “people problems.”

If you’ve correctly addressed all five of the above and you still experience performance problems from a worker, then and only then are you entitled to look at their attitude and motivation.


Request the “Manager’s First Duty” worksheet and get five supporting emails:

Hat tip to John Seddon – much of the above is informed and inspired by his excellent book “Freedom from Command and Control: Rethinking Management for Lean Service.”

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