Effective Leaders Use Systems Thinking Not "Blame Thinking"

Effective Leaders Use Systems Thinking Not "Blame Thinking" 150 150 Wally Hauck, PhD, CSP

“I do not judge success based on championships; rather,

I judge it on how close we came to realizing our potential.”

– John Wooden

I strongly believe that leaders who want to bring out the genius of every employee and who want to optimize results (especially through customer experience and employee engagement) must be systems thinkers.[1]

Bill Walsh, the renowned National Football League coach, had an unusual belief about quarterbacks: “They are only as good as the system they played in.”

In 1970-71 while an offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Walsh developed a passing game that enabled Virgil Carter, a below-average quarterback who up to that point had never even completed half of his passes. That system propelled Carter, the weaker quarterback, to lead the league in completion percentage at 62.2%; the system also increased his yards per completion by 24% (going from 5.9 to 7.3).

In 1979, Walsh joined the San Francisco 49ers as head coach. He used the same system he had employed in Cincinnati to propel another quarterback, Steve Deberg (who by most statistical measures was one of the NFL’s worst) from a 45.4% completion rate to an astonishing 60%. That year, Deberg ended up throwing more completions than any other quarterback in NFL history up to that point.

In the two years that followed Walsh found Joe Montana who is now known, in many circles, as the “best” quarterback in NFL history. I prefer to think that all three quarterbacks took advantage of the best system in NFL history – a system that challenged them, successfully, to reach their full potential as John Wooden suggested.

How did Walsh do it? He didn’t try to change the quarterback. Instead, he changed the system within which the quarterbacks played.

Effective leaders must understand why and how to manage their systems.  It’s about managing the system rather than trying to manage the people. The central tenet here is that “An employee is only as good as system he or she works in.” This core belief flies in the face of the typical belief held by the typical organizational culture, which, whether it is stated explicitly or not, usually holds that the performance of an individual can be measured and improved separately from the system within which he or she works. This is false.  Leaders who act with this false belief will continue to create unintended consequences which will hold back the potential of both the individuals and the entire system.  Leaders who assign blame will create fear and damage innovation. Leaders who focus on optimizing the system will bring out the genius of every employee and results beyond their expectations.

I love Dunkin Donuts Coffee. Nearly every morning I will pick up a large cup just before a client meeting and bring it into the meeting with me. I always order a large and I don’t like sugar. For years, I ordered my coffee using this process: “May I have a large, cream, no sugar.”

About 10 % of the time I would get sugar in my coffee. Since I can’t drink coffee with sugar I would have to either toss it out and be out $2.25 (and be cranky) or go back and order another. The Dunkin Donuts were always friendly about replacing the coffee; it was just a hassle to go back and replace it.

One day I ordered a coffee, got in my car. and headed to my appointment. I tasted the coffee; sure enough, it had sugar. I got angry. I decided to go back and complain loudly (at the clerk) about how they don’t seem to hire people who don’t know how to listen.

By the time I got to the store, the implications of an emotional confrontation with the store manager and the clerk gave me pause.  Perhaps my own process was not working. Why was I mentioning sugar at all if I didn’t want any sugar?

I decided at that moment to change my process. I began asking for a “Large — just cream.” In the four years that followed my new process, I have not gotten sugar in my coffee a single time. Not once!

As it turns out, our brains have a difficult time hearing a negative. If you ask someone to stop thinking about pink rabbits, they will think about pink rabbits. If you ask for no sugar, they will hear the word “sugar”.

It was the mention of sugar (the process) that caused the problem. The Dunkin Donuts worker was not the root cause. My system was the root cause. Once I changed the process the problem disappeared.  It made no sense to blame the clerk.  That was my first reaction.  That is how we have been taught to think about performance improvement.

Leaders are responsible for the system within which the employees work.  If the system is flawed it will create a high probability of dysfunction and it is the leader who has set up the system.  I was the leader of my coffee ordering process and it was my order process that caused the dysfunction of the Dunkin Donuts clerk.  Once my process was changed, the clerks I encountered performed perfectly every time.  How can one explain the perfect performance of multiple clerks at multiple stores if it is not the performance of the system?

A leader who appreciates systems will be able to recognize the real root causes of events and will spend most of their time improving the system and enrolling the employees to help improve the processes within the system.

The typical performance management process attempts to improve the individuals through feedback.  Furthermore, today organizations are requesting even more frequent feedback from managers to employees.  Is that frequent feedback about individual performance or is it about how employees can improve their processes and their interactions?  Are we systems thinkers or are we blame assigners?  To be optimally effective we must become system thinkers.

[1] Systems Thinking: Is a discipline of using data to identify patterns, processes, and structures that cause events. It’s a way of thinking and acting to obtain knowledge to make changes in process and structure to improve the interactions between the parts of a system and instead of making improvements to the parts of the system.  Excerpts taken from The Art of Leading: 3 Principles for Predictable Performance Improvement by Wally Hauck, PhD, CSP

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