The People vs. System Conundrum

The People vs. System Conundrum


I’ve seen recently that some folks have difficulty reconciling Deming’s 95% rule:

“Dr. Deming taught me that 95% of the performance of an organization is attributable to the system (processes, technology, work design, regulations, etc.) and [only] 5% is attributable to the individual.”

~ Tripp Babbitt

with Jerry Weinberg’s Second Law of Consulting:

“No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.”

~ Jerry Weinberg

I can appreciate the dilemma, but resolve it myself thusly:

It is always a people problem (as per Weinberg), but the solution is not to try to change the people (that’s a pointless red herring). Rather, the solution is to change the system (as per Deming).

Even better is having the people (the workers) change the system themselves (with the active participation of management, so everyone can share the normative learning experience).

“It’s easier to act our way into a new way of thinking, than think our way into a new way of acting.”

~ Jerry Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance

And how might we all decide what changes to make to the system? Just apply the Antimatter Principle. The most effective knowledge-work system – and organisation – is one in which eveyone’s needs get attended to.

– Bob

  1. Thank you for yet another gem from your shimmering mind.

    I agree it is pointless trying to change people. What is worth while doing though is to inspire others to make a change for themselves. A delicate (anti)matter.

    I also agree it is better when people change the system together using everybody’s needs as guiding lights.

    What more can be of value when considering change? I think realizing that all profound change start within yourself is one key.

  2. Ged Byrne said:

    Hi Bob,

    I think the answer is in plain site: people problems are not problems with individuals. People problems are systemic problems because they involve people, not a person.

    What is a system?

    Google gives us two definitions:

    1. a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.

    2. a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.

    Whenever 2 or more people gather together to achieve a shared purpose, there a system has come into being. When the number of people is small. Two’s company, three’s a system. A crowd is a system, a system that can be modelled using fluid dynamics:

    It’s always a people problem, but it’s rarely the fault of an individual. 95% of the time everybody is just trying to do their best.

    When you have a small number of people the system can usually work things our informally. As the size of the system grows, it becomes necessary to introduce processes, technology, work design, regulations, etc..

    Give a bunch of kids a ball and tell them to play then before long it will turn into squabbling. When they all know a few simple rules then they can happily play football all day long.

    The processes, technologies, work design, regulation, etc. all serve a purpose: to attend to folks needs. Folk need to work well together without treading on each other’s toes.

    The system is made up of people, not the procedures and principles. The latter exist to help the people work together harmoniously.

    Jim’s a CSS expert. Susan and Steve both need their sites looking beautiful for tomorrow’s deadline but Jim can only satisfy one of them today. Susan and Steve fight over Jim while he sits idle waiting to see whose work he should do first. We have a people problem. Which individual is to blame? Susan, Steve or Jim?

    The problem is in the system. It has put Susan and Steve in conflict with one another. It made them clash by giving the same deadline and a shared dependency.

  3. David said:

    Hi Bob,

    A very important conundrum, which raises other questions, e.g:

    Does it require the right individuals (or rather, individuals with the right mindset and skills) to change the organisation?

    – If not, then wouldn’t we expect to see far more organisational transformations than at present? Or are we saying that anyone can do it, but there is some obstacle that needs to be removed or some catalyst that is required (and what would that be?)

    – If so, then this further stokes up the people-versus-system dilemma – it’s all about the system, but certain people are key to changing the system (or we need to focus on people development first before they are ready to change the system. Or we need to insert a ‘catalyst’ person to get things going…?)

  4. Reblogged this on knittingfog and commented:
    I would struggle to find a more elegant and succinct explanation of the misconceptions around “the 95/5” than this… Thank you, Flowchainsensei.

  5. There are some tricks not well enough known. For example, group meetings for solving problems have many problems including group think, bickering, power plays, and ad hominem arguments to name a few. John Shook wrote a book about the A3 process at Toyota which addresses many of these and leads to effective buy in by almost all participants.

    One leader writes up on an A3 sheet, roughly a two letter size page sheet, what she knows about the problem and the approaches available to address it. Then she takes that modest size discussion around to each participant in turn and gets their input as to both the problem and the ways to address it. Then she creates a better discussion with revised bullet points that include the input from others, and makes another round.

    After enough rounds, she writes up the final discussion and its conclusions. Every participant can see and know that their viewpoint has been heard, and no one has been ridiculed or roughly overruled. Thus there is a firm basis for each person to buy into the written understanding and selected resolution.

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