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Focus on Process, Set Free Great Minds

by Tim Kane
March 26, 2014

Focus on Process, Set Free Great Minds

by Tim Kane
March 26, 2014 | Comments (6)

"Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people."

This quote is frequently attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, although it has no formally documented source. I came across it recently and it really hit home personally and professionally.

Personally, I’m too often guilty of talking about others when they aren’t present, and I shamefully admit that it's not always to highlight the awesomeness of these people. Maybe it’s human nature, or maybe I'm just a bad person. Either way, I'm working on it. Professionally, I’ve also been guilty of engaging in such "low-minded" discussions where a person or group of people—coincidentally those absent from the discussion—are deemed to be "the problem."

Is playing this “blame game” at work just another social inevitability of the human condition? There’s got to be another way, right?

Aspiring to high-mindedness in our professional conversations is a noble pursuit, but it’s not always easy. Sometimes it seems like the problem really is the person, dag-nabbit! If this person would only stop being so _____ , or if that group would just get their ______ together, then… Well, then what? Does blissful, collaborative nirvana ensue just as soon as all the “problem people” abandon their wrong-headed ways? Perhaps while awaiting the divine intervention or artful downsizing necessary to achieve this ideal, we might consider ways to simply and proactively engage in more idea-oriented and yes, "high-minded" conversations.

What I most enjoy about lean-based continuous improvement work is the way it can help a cross-functional group of people come together and talk candidly about process problems without pointing fingers. This high-mindedness can be achieved only if participants honestly subscribe to one simple truth: It’s the process, not the people.

When quality or financial performance indicators fall short, attributing the cause to employee performance (people problems) is all too easy. Conveniently, this avoids the challenges of value stream mapping, data gathering, and evidence-based root cause analysis. It’s much easier to blame the people struggling with a flawed process than it is to gather a cross-functional team, set divisional politics aside, work together to understand how a process is broken, design and implement kaizen solutions, and measure results. In my experience, when a performance shortfall is subjected to the rigor of well-facilitated process analysis, the actual cause is very rarely an incompetent or unmotivated worker. The root cause of a problem is almost invariably a flawed process.

When I coach folks on value stream mapping and kaizen, we follow this “It’s the process” rule without exception. By doing so, the process becomes the subject of scrutiny. So often when we map the current state of a value stream, and its problems and pain points are revealed, something wonderful happens. We laugh! Long-held, negative assumptions explode. People offer up hilariously humble confessions of process non-compliance. We all feel free to ask each other "why" requirements are so, or turnaround-times are thus. Everybody loosens up. We all learn from each other, and we have some fun. Focusing on process, not people, not only improves the work; it actually strengthens work relationships along the way.

I led a value stream improvement workshop recently for which I would count “strengthened work relationships” as one of our most impactful kaizen achievements. The process included a handoff from the program team to the finance team. This seemingly straightforward transaction had, for reasons unknown, resulted in a significant percentage of downstream data reconciliation errors.

The finance team, confident of their own processing accuracy, assumed that errors were being made by the submitters on the program side. The program team of course was convinced that finance was mucking up their data entry on the receiving end. Out of professional respect, neither team ever made a big deal of the inaccuracies and simply cleaned up the monthly reconciliation fallout as a matter of course. Value stream mapping, keeping the focus on process, enabled the two groups to come together and point to the process problem without blaming each other. Root cause analysis revealed that a system bug was causing the reconciliation errors. In that revelatory instant, the relationship between the two teams changed from one of respectful tolerance to one of collaborative achievement (and kaizen righteousness)!

When you or your organization sincerely buy into this "focus on the process" concept, those seemingly impossible high-minded conversations become the norm. Change advocates find themselves able to lead their team members, and overall cultural resistance to change erodes. And then great minds feel liberated to contemplate the greatest ideas.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
Lori Atwood March 26, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment

After our company downsized, causing many people to be overloaded with work, this has become a issue.  It's easier to point the finger at someone else, then to investigate and narrow down to the root cause of the problem.  We have a hard time finding the "awesomeness" in people.  Thanks for touching upon something that many people don't even realize they are engaging in.   

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Tim Kane March 28, 2014
Thank you for sharing this, Lori.

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Joel Gross March 28, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment
A line that works well for me in this situation: Remember, it's called the 5-whys, not the 5-who's!

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Tim Kane March 28, 2014
Love that, Joel!

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Yu david March 30, 2014
i appreciate the norm: focus on the process!
we should stop blame staffs, respect their job and improve the process. sometimes it's so hard because you can't control the culture, you are not CEO.
lean is difficult to push if top managers don't care.

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Christina Sadowski April 03, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I  found this article to be interesting and inspiring. I don't work in the finance or corporate world - rather in academia - but I can see some important parallels.  This article has left me with lots of "food for thought."  Thanks Tim for this thought-provoking and well-written article!

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