People + Process = High Performance

Over the last few years I’ve had somewhat of an awakening or discovery that high performance is not just about great processes. High performance, I would argue, especially in the transactional world, centers more on people. Unfortunately, most lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals like myself have been taught from a single drawer of tools (i.e. stats, graphs, charts, etc.) when high performance requires in many cases opening a second drawer focused on people. In this post I will share a simple perspective that may help you determine which of these drawers you need to pull tools from to get to the performance you seek.

All organizations whether they are for-profit, non-profit, private or public sector, government, etc. run on two things-people and processes. People are required to deliver a product or service to customers or citizens, and processes are required to create the product or service. You can’t do one without the other.

The 4 “Can-Do’s”.

When starting an improvement effort you need to determine-is this more of a people problem or a process problem? From my experience you will likely have a little of both, but generally one is greater than the other, and that may be an initial indication which drawer you will need to pull from more to attain higher performance. Four simple questions to begin with that may indicate the problem is more of a people issue are:

  1. Do they know what to do?
  2. Do they know how to do it?
  3. Can they do it?
  4. Do they want to do it?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no” you may want to start by addressing the people issues rather than turning the problem into a LSS project that may not address the true issue. For example, when I was in high school I worked a coop job during my junior and senior years in a warehouse that supplied woodworking professionals supplies like saw blades, drill bits, etc. My job was to fill orders and prepare them for shipment to customers. I was working in this job for three months and feeling like I was doing a great job because I wasn’t hearing otherwise, but when my teacher came to meet with the company owner for my first semester evaluation he told my teacher I was going to be fired if I didn’t stop making so many mistakes!

Here I thought I was doing such a great job, but was on the verge of being fired! When my teacher gave me the news I clearly knew I had some improving to do. My boss failed to address the first three questions from above, but once I was given clear direction and expectations were set I made very few errors from that point on. In fact, I worked for the company for several years after high school while in college. What a change one simple conversation and setting clear expectations and direction did for my performance!

Looking at this scenario from purely a process standpoint, the former me (process focused LSS MBB) would have said this is a great LSS project opportunity! I would have put together a project charter defining the problem, metric, goal, and business case and created a team to start collecting data to track the baseline percentage of orders filled correctly, and before long I would have been knee deep in statistical analysis when all that was needed to improve performance would have been a simple…”Hey Scott, you’re making a lot of mistakes filling orders, here’s a simple way to fill orders and make fewer mistakes. Try this and lets see how well it works for you.”

Looking past the obvious.

What I’ve discovered is we as LSS professionals often look past the obvious at the start of an investigation related to performance issues. We see problems only from a process perspective because that is what we are traditionally trained to do. In many ways we are blind to the people issues that may be the true root cause of the problem.

Another way of looking at the problem is to determine which quadrant the issues resides in. Below is an illustration to help visualize what I am describing. The worst case scenario is the bottom left quadrant where the process is out of control and the people working in it are not engaged in their work. My advice in this scenario is to run…run as fast as you can to avoid the fallout from the imminent explosion!

Seriously, you face a challenge that can be overcome, and in all cases I would start with addressing people issues first because it’s difficult to address process issues without good people involved, then move on to the process, but in many cases if this has been going on for a long time the end is probably near and maybe running is a good option.

A second possibility illustrated in the lower right quadrant is that you have good processes but disengaged employees. The aforementioned four questions are a good starting point to address the people issues found here.

A third scenario is engaged employees, but bad processes as illustrated in the upper left quadrant. This situation is ripe for LSS tools to help analyze the process for deficiencies that are leading to waste and defects.

A final possibility is the ideal one that is located in the upper right quadrant, which also leads to how best to determine which quadrant you are in. One simple way to determine which of these quadrants you are in is to talk with customers and employees. Are customers happy with the product or service being provided? Do employees enjoy their work and find it engaging? The answers to these questions will determine the quadrant you are in, and also which of the toolbox drawers you will need to pull from to find a path to the upper right quadrant.

Is your heart in it?

What I’ve learned over the last few years is that the most important element to high performance is having a heart focused on helping others thrive and flourish at what they love to do. In fact, that’s my personal mission statement I use to describe to others what I do. No amount of knowledge, training, education, or experienced can replace a heart for improvement. So consider the first step in achieving high performance by evaluating what’s in your heart, then move on to determining if you have a people issue or a process issue, and finally get to work on using the right tools to achieve higher performance!

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