Blame the Process, Not the People


No matter how sophisticated, well managed or cutting-edge our organization is, sooner or later something will go wrong. It’s easy to envisage the occasional individual getting upset, irrespective of how much focus we put on customer service. How this is handled, tells us a lot about the company, its relationship with its employees and how likely it is to help them fulfill their potential.

When things go wrong – particularly where a worker on the front-line is involved – there is a natural temptation to put the issue down to human error. In some instances, the individual employee in question might get blamed, which can lead to a negative workplace culture and a cycle of negativity. However, when examined holistically, problems of this type can provide opportunities for organizations to look beyond the obvious causes, establish underlying issues and make the changes that prevent the problem from happening in the future.

A Hypothetical Scenario:

A customer writes to a company they hold an account with and makes a request to change their address. This letter is safely received, yet no action is taken. In the meantime, multiple important letters are sent to the customer’s old address as the accounts database hasn’t been updated. Following a complaint, a fast-tracked investigation takes place with the aim of resolving the issue as quickly as possible. The complaints handler finds the original letter on an employee’s desk four weeks after receipt with the address still unchanged. After a brief conversation with the employee, the complaint-handler puts the situation down to human error, closes the ticket and offers the customer some compensation. 

In a situation like this it’s easy to see how an employee gets blamed for their apparent inaction, but so often the root-cause is more complex. Examining processes and supporting systems provides better insight.

In fact, problems or complaints that arise can be excellent opportunities to examine the ‘as is’ process and see if there’s a better way of doing things, or if there are more appropriate tools to help support those involved. Often understanding one apparently isolated incident in more detail helps us to uncover a chain of related problems, enabling us to improve the business process in ways that will have significant benefits.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Building on the example above helps us to illustrate this point. Whilst the complaint-handler’s initial instinct was to blame the employee, had further investigation taken place it might have uncovered a series of complications. Perhaps the real problem was that the letter had been redirected through several departments, or there had been several unnecessary hand-overs. Maybe the customer originally sent the letter to the ‘wrong’ department, because this was the only postal address they could find on the website (which suggests room for improvement). Alternatively, the letter could have sat un-actioned on the employee's desk because they were waiting for authorization to process it from their manager who was on holiday, suggesting a dangerous bottleneck. Or maybe the process had never been documented and the employee had received no formal training. Any combination of the above suggests deeper issues than employee incompetence.

On top of all this, of course, the question has to be asked whether there could be a better way for customers to submit changes like this – online or by phone would be logical options. These complex factors bubble away under the surface, and may go unnoticed until we examine the problem holistically.

The reality is that very few employees, if any, set out to do a substandard job. Of course, in some cases there will be genuine human error – and even then it might suggest a need to review the approach taken in recruitment or learning and development.

It is far more common to find processes that are out-of-date, aren’t fit for purpose or don’t align to the customer’s real needs. This may also include poor training for workers, who find themselves inadequately trained in the nuances of the process. By understanding the end-to-end process, and by experiencing our process from the outside-in rather than focusing on internal silos, we are able to formulate ways of driving real improvement. Mapping out the process is a practical first step to gaining this understanding and enables us to pinpoint and examine the point or points at which it failed. Once the problem areas are known, we can drill deeper to uncover the root causes.

In conjunction with examining these process, speaking directly to those involved in carrying out the work helps us understand the issue in its entirety. This holistic thinking gets us closer to the real problem and formulate better ways of solving it, without anyone being blamed or made to feel guilty. In this way improving processes can have a direct effect on employee satisfaction and ability to succeed.