Bad System, Bad Performance


Pin the tail on the donkey is a children's game. Unfortunately, it is one that is also commonly played in the workplace.

Everyone claims to hate the blame game. Why are we so susceptible to it in our businesses and organizations? We must get some sadistic satisfaction from watching other people punished for missteps at work. But while we're busy looking at who is to blame, we often miss the hidden causes of bad performance - bad systems.

Think of a sports team, band, or Stage Company that boasts some of the greatest talent available yet chronically under-performs. While you might fault the players for not meeting expectations, chances are that they are suffering from the effects of poor performance systems.

The same is true in business. Instead of searching for the guilty, perhaps we should be looking at systems to see if they are supporting or undermining individual performance?


Ten Signs of Bad Systems


One of management's most important responsibilities is too regularly review and improve the systems that support productivity. Here are ten symptoms that usually indicate that systems are failing.

  1. Roles and responsibilities are unclear. Where people do not understand what they are supposed to do, breakdown occurs quickly. The larger the grey areas between roles, the bigger the opportunity for personal and collective failure.
  2. Communication gaps between levels. If top-down and bottom up communication is impeded, chances are that people are talking to each other at their own functional level. You can bet that those conversations are complaint-based. Fear of getting into trouble, silo-mentality and expediency are the prime drivers of poor communication. It's a death trap for organizational effectiveness and efficiency.
  3. Fire-fighting mentality. When there are no systems or poor systems to handle work- flow, people often revert to firefighting to fix inevitable breakdowns. Unfortunately, while it might feel like something's being accomplished while doing it, fire-fighting mentality can sabotage organizational effectiveness. Misplaced pride accompanies putting out a blaze diverting attention from the real problem — poor systems.
  4. Tactical answers to strategic problems. When symptoms are the focus of problem solving the problem usually persists. Taking the time to look at underlying issues leads to more effective and lasting solutions. Unfortunately, these days time for planning is seen as a scarce commodity. But there appears to be plenty of time for the high drama and flailing about that accompanies chronic systems problems. And there's definitely time to hunt down the guilty. An hour of planning can save days, even months, of trouble-shooting.
  5. Glacial decisions. Too much bureaucracy can create risky lag times in decision making. If the chain of command is too long, organizations cannot hope to compete in a marketplace that demands agility.
  6. Remote decision-making. If you hope to be agile, employees must be empowered to make decisions at the front line. This discretionary power needs clear protocols to guide decision-making. When employees do not feel empowered to act, companies grow flat footed. The folks in the corner office are often too far behind the daily action for command and control style management to be effective.
  7. Turf wars. Powers struggles and silo mentality present real risks to large-scale business systems. Today, to be successful, businesses need less internal borders and more collaboration. Unhealthy office politics make this virtually impossible.
  8. Conflict avoidance. No relationship is ever without conflict. Different visions, priorities, approaches and styles can lead to interpersonal and inter-group conflict. If it is not addressed, and swept under the rug, the workplace becomes filled with landmines. Dysfunction results. The willingness and ability to talk through differences is vital to keeping systems strong.
  9. Resistance to change. Being overly comfortable with the status quo kills innovation and enterprise. The higher up the ladder the resistance occurs, the more damaging it can be. Too often the tried and true was tried and true at an appropriate moment in the companies history. Unfortunately, the law of entropy demands that organizations innovate rather than remain static.
  10. High attrition rates. If your top performers are leaving, looking for greener pastures, or are under-performing, something is wrong. Taking the pulse of employee satisfaction, not just by mechanical surveys, but also in direct face-to-face conversations, helps leaders understand how to attend to the culture at work. The systems that support organizational culture may be the most important success factor in the workplace.


In a climate of blame, everyone's performance suffers. Before looking for the villain, leaders need to examine systems and processes to ensure they are performing well. That's a strategic solution that supports individual and collective performance and leads to competitive success.


Posted on April 1, 2013 .