Systems Thinking: Bringing leaders and employees together at an emotional level

Author: Des Kelly

Training Journal

In this article, first published In Training Journal, Director Consultant Des Kelly connects systems thinking and emotion in business.

Training Journal article

Systems Thinking 

Measurement of performance within organisations is possibly the most misunderstood and misused technique available to senior leaders. Some organisations can even destroy the bond between leader and employee by measuring the wrong things or by measuring the right things but in the wrong way.

There is a maxim that emerged from social science that suggests that ‘Not everything that can be counted counts & not everything that counts can be counted.’ We may be able to count how many customer complaints we’ve had but will we ever be able to count the cost of unhappy customers telling other potential customers of their bad experience?

This is a view that was articulated by W.Edwards Deming when he said,

He that would run his company on visible figures alone will in time have neither company nor figures…the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable, but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.

So, how should leaders approach the subject of measurement? And how do they implement these so that the employees can positively respond and influence them?

The first thing to do is something that is more related to beliefs and assumptions than any statistical endeavour. We should start with the customer, their needs and wants because they determine what the business will be. Senior leaders define the system that can deliver this ‘want’ and then lead its deployment.

We will only know if the system is working if we measure

This may seem obvious but it’s often where things start to go wrong.  All measures should be a sensible balance of effectiveness – how well we are satisfying the customer, and efficiency – how much resource it takes to satisfy the customer. All too frequently organisations have a disproportionate bias towards efficiency with the very real risk that they become extremely efficient at delivering the wrong thing.

After measurements come understanding targets and their related cause and effects. It is at this point we run the risk of creating measures that fashion a rift between the leaders and the employees.

One of the errors leaders can make when setting targets is that while they seem to be derived from understanding the needs and wants of the customer, they have no science or method as to how they can be achieved.

The deployment of these types of target is a certain way to destroy the bond between leader and worker. When targets are set with no science of method of delivery, it means leaders don’t understand what to do. Setting a goal in this circumstance is just a misplaced appeal to the employees to work harder or to be better.

The consequence of driving that target will only generate concern or worse, fear, in the people assigned to the task of delivery. The achievement of targets or goals needs rational logic for how they can be achieved.

Back in 1986, in his book Out of the Crisis, Deming suggested that management should,

Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the workforce.

For every target, there must be a rational understanding of the effect, which is the desired target, and its cause, the upstream activity that predicates the result. These, in process language, are referred to as Results Measures (related to the target) and Process Measures (related to the cause).

The Results Measure tells us how well we satisfy the target or customer requirement, the Process Measure tells us how probable it is that we will hit the target.

When we establish process measures and allow those working in the process to control these and improve the very method that delivers them, we build on the intrinsic desire of all humans to do well. The outcome is a powerful one, its’ gives the employee pride in what they do and better yet, control over the outcome.


About the author

Des Kelly

Des Kelly is a Director Consultant at PMI with over 25 years experience helping clients around the world to develop successful improvement strategies. He has led transatlantic transformation programmes for some of the world’s largest organisations.

If you have any questions for Des, please do get in touch.

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