People v Process


The other day there was a heated discussion at work. Some folks were upset because they didn’t have enough time to talk to customers before a large new feature was going to be released. The folks on the other side of the table thought they’d given plenty of waring and wanted to maintain our speed of delivery for customer value. Both sides had valid points and it was obvious that improvement was needed.

Someone summarized the discussion the following day, mentioning that this was “not a people problem, but a process problem”. This was a turning point for everyone involved.

The critical point made here was that our solution was not to fix a person - their behaviors, actions, or what we expect from them - but rather a process. We needed to figure out why our current processes were not enabling better communication between groups and how they needed to evolve to support the goals of all involved.

This idea is an important one and serves more purposes than just solving the problem at hand. The result was not just an improvement to our processes, but also a strengthening of relationships and culture - it was a shifting of blame from people to process.

Often times it’s very easy for us to point fingers, or to dole out blame to others. Other times we must accept blame ourselves and look to improve. It’s never easy being told you need to do better. But if the discussion is around how you must improve the process you’re using or the process used by a group, it’s less targeted. It allows the team to pull together instead of apart. It lets you focus on the problem, the business, the method of work instead of the person, their attitude, their skill, and where they aren’t doing enough.

This also results in better solutions overall because of the nature of the solution. If you’re trying to fix a person, that’s not usually a team effort. Maybe there’s a manager involved or just people providing feedback. But if you’re trying to fix a process, it’s usually something that involves several people, which means that they’ll all naturally have opinions on how this should go. So now what we have is a team of people working towards a shared objective instead of a team of people who are upset about someone’s performance. That’s a big deal.

This is often called a “No Blame Culture” and can be seen in many major organizations. One of my favorite examples is the Mercedes F1 team, lead by Toto Wolff. I love this example because failure is so common in F1 racing. It’s a very high pressure environment for everyone involved and the teams who support the drivers are quite large. So when something goes wrong it would be so easy to point the finger. The driver lost control, it’s his fault! The engine died! We have bad engineers! But that’s not what happens. Instead - and you can even see this live during race - what happens is that they immediately move past individual fault. Emotions will be high but everyone on the team knows that blame is useless and isn’t something that’s encouraged at Mercedes F1. What is encouraged is identifying the source of the problem and figuring out what needs to change to fix it. What process was faulty that resulted in this situation? Was it the training schedule for the driver? Was it the quality control metrics in engineering? You get the idea.

Thinking in this way has enormous potential in all areas of our life. It also teaches you to think differently - to consider the root problem and how to approach a solution as a team, without assigning blame. Next time you find yourself in a “high blame” situation, take a moment to consider. What would Toto do?