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Stop Blaming Focus on the Process to Achieve Optimal Performance

According to Dr. Deming, father of the modern quality management movement, ninety-four percent (94%) of all problems are caused by the system. 

“Every system is designed (consciously or unconsciously) to get the results it gets.”  

Blaming individuals should be banished, according to Dr Deming.  Blaming is dysfunctional.  It inhibits creativity and candid communication, creates discord and makes it virtually impossible to identify and address the real causes of poor performance. 

Deming said this decades ago. It is intuitively obvious to anyone who has worked in and around organizations and who takes a systems oriented, holistic view. But, while there has been a growth in the acceptance of this paradigm and its application in many organizations, there are people who take the easy way and hold to the old belief that blaming and punishing a culprit is the way to address problems and remove defects.   

It reminds me of the old story of the three envelopes:

After several months of problems, late delivery and over spending, the project manager is relieved of duties.  He takes his successor aside and gives him three numbered envelopes and tells him to open them in sequence when he feels the need for some advice in the face of a crisis.   Pretty quickly, the new PM opens the first envelope.  Its content says “Blame your predecessor.”  

He follows this advice and buys himself the time to revise the plan and get things moving in a positive direction.  Weeks pass and the same old problems rear their ugly heads.  Time for envelope two.    The advice is “Reorganize.”

Following this advice, the PM shuffles some people around, changes some roles and again buys himself the time to get things back on track.  After several more weeks go by, it’s the same slipped deadlines and budget overruns, plus product defects.  

Opening envelope number three, the PM reads “Make three envelopes.”

Eventually, the project will reach an end – either by being cancelled or because a product has been delivered.  However, the same problems will reoccur in future projects unless someone looks at the real causes of late delivery, budget overruns and quality short-falls.

While individual performance may be a factor, if there is a continuous stream of poorly performing PMs, there may be a systemic issue causing that.  But, more likely, the systemic issues are not about the selection of individual performers.   

The Causes

In project work the issues are probably anchored in a lack of appreciation of project management process coupled with flawed thinking, leading to poor planning, poor communications and unrealistic expectations.  If anyone is to blame for these, it is executive level management, since they own the processes and are the only ones with the authority to refine them.  But, even at this level, any continuous repetition of poor decisions and performance is evidence of systemic problems, particularly biases and beliefs that perpetuate the current state.  

One belief is that it is only by establishing personal responsibility that defects can be removed. People make problems happen. If they change their behavior the problems will go away. We can get them to change their behavior by holding them accountable, training them, exhorting them to excel, punishing them or replacing them. 

Another belief is that the root cause of the problem is a flaw in the system. Maybe training is insufficient, maybe there is ineffective quality control, supervision or communication. Find the flaw and fix it and the problem will go away.

If we take sides and argue that one of these beliefs is true and the other false, we may never get to the real work of identifying causes and eliminating them.  It will just be another round of what The Who were singing about in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution

Take a bow for the new revolution

Smile and grin at the change all around

Pick up my guitar and play

Just like yesterday

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray

We don’t get fooled again

No, no!

Meet the new boss

Same as the old boss.”

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How not get fooled again?

Take a systems and process thinking perspective.  Realize that everything has a cause and that everything is part of a system of interacting systems.  A project takes place in an organization in which there are multiple projects and operations.  Each project is effected by the interactions among its stakeholders.  Resources may be shared among multiple projects.  There may be environmental events such as regulatory changes, policy shifts, the weather, etc. Any change anywhere can affect the overall system.

Get real!  Remember that wanting something to happen will not necessarily make it happen.  Accept the realities that quality assurance and control are needed and not easy to estimate, that changes to requirements cost time and money and that the later in the project they occur the more time and money they cost and that when stakeholders change, there will be an impact on the schedule.  Also, remember that competency and knowledge matter.  

When there are budget, schedule and quality shortfalls, ask “What is the cause?”  “What is the cause of that cause?” And so on, until a root cause is found.  Cause analysis is far more difficult than blaming someone.  It requires a stepping back to candidly analyze the process, including the interactions across departments and projects, competency levels and more.  It implies keeping performance records and using them in the analysis.  Cause analysis implies changes in values, for example, no longer rewarding the heroic saviors who can get things done under any circumstances and, instead, rewarding the people who eliminate the need for heroics.  Defensiveness needs to be eliminated so that there is no hiding of the truth.

Analysis is not enough.  Process improvement requires action.  Act on the actionable causes to eliminate them or reduce the probability that they will occur.  If the root causes are not actionable then plan for them and moderate their effects.  

The bottom line: Stop blaming.  Get people ready to have their performance assessed without becoming defensive, focus on the process by performing post project reviews, evaluate multiple projects across time, assess and continuously improve processes such as portfolio management and resource management that contribute to performance issues in individual projects.  Yes, it’s a tall order.  But if you don’t do it you are bound to repeating dysfunctional behavior.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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