I was reminded several times this week about systems that have failed.
That line of conversation would begin a lively discussion at the local coffee shop. We all have stories about our bad experiences at the hands of someone who blindly obeyed a process even though it was obviously flawed.
The truth is that a good number of those systems weren’t designed to fail and those processes were not flawed when they were implemented. But things change and when systems don’t adapt, they fail to deliver.
Much has been written about the different types of leaders. We want capable women and men to run our industries, schools, hospitals, and other organizations. We look for certain characteristics and we set certain expectations. One of the dominant themes we trumpet is that our leaders must be individuals who can solve problems. And, thus, most of our leaders believe that they are where they are to “fix” what’s broken.
Systems are a part of the “fix.” We design plans that allow us to group similar activities and challenges together. We make policies and rules to permit a batch-handling of those things. And then we demand that all problems be treated exactly the same way. For the most part, if the system was well thought-out, it works with only a few exceptions.
In fact, many systems work so well that we come to worship the system. If someone or something doesn’t fit the system, we justify that particular failure as a glitch or anomaly or, in more graphic terms, collateral damage. We hesitate adjusting the system because it has served us well in the past. Since we know that systems can’t be totally effective, we establish an acceptable failure rate.
Most organizations, however, have one or more systems where the failure rate has far exceeded acceptability. Healthy organizations respond with adjustments and, when necessary, total replacement systems — which, of course, come with their own new problems. Yet, a majority of organizations don’t respond until total failure is imminent. Some, rather than investing in effective solutions, simply change their expectations. Rather than redesign a system, they simply accept failure as their outcome.
We live in a complex world. We must have systems. But we must have leaders who are more concerned with those they serve than they are in preserving a system that fails. If your system isn’t working, adjust the system. Don’t break the people.