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Leadership: people, systems and processes

Author: Loes Bon

What is leadership?

Most managers spend a lot of time focused on their people. They think they can actually improve organizational performance by influencing their employees. But is this really true? Maybe there are different and faster ways to enhance performance.

Leadership and the human error factor

tightrope dancerEvery manager knows that people are the capital by which they get their results, and most of the time managers acknowledge this. But in their hearts they are often dissatisfied about the people they have to work with. The manager sees insufficient entrepreneurship, creativity or discipline. Often cooperation and communication could be improved as well. By investing a lot of time in people, the manager hopes to compensate for any shortcomings, tries to solve problems quickly or prevent them. As such, the manager hopes to make a structural contribution to the performance of the division.

Managers are busy people. If they choose to invest a lot of time in their people, they are not investing this time elsewhere. Therefore, they should be certain that this is the right choice or examine if there are any alternatives.

Technical and People problems

Managers assume that many organizational problems are caused by employees. Employees are the reason why the service level, production standard or quality measurements are not met. These managers are fooling themselves. They should know that 85% of the problems within an organization, are caused by its processes, and systems.

System vs employees

Everyone knows examples of processes and systems that function poorly or are insufficiently integrate with each other. These poorly functioning processes and systems make it difficult for people to deliver high-quality end products. The problem is that people are visible and systems are not. So, when things go wrong, often people get the blame. Yet, it is a fact that a well-performing employee always loses to a badly functioning system. In reality, there are many exceptionally conscientious employees solving organizational problems without anyone paying much attention to them.

Any well-functioning managers always loses to a badly functioning system

Routines vs leadership

If employees cause only 15% of the problems, then the manager is really responsible for the other 85%. After all, the manager is responsible for the internal complexity of the organization that obstructs its functioning. Managers often think that the organization’s increased size causes the increase in problems. But it is complexity that is the cause. The unfortunate thing is that managers like complexity. They love intellectual challenges and dislike routine tasks. Regularly, this personal preference wins out over the preference of those who actually execute the tasks and who want to organize work in the simplest way possible.

Managers’ biggest wish

When managers are asked: ‘If you could improve just one thing in your organization, what would it be?’ The most common answer is: ‘Communication, communication, communication.’ That is, communication between internal customers, between departments or with end users. In addition to the personal time managers invest in their employees they also invest significantly in communication training and personal effectiveness training. When people really are the cause of problems this is a good investment. But be aware that this is only in 15% of the cases, which makes significant investments in personal training sessions and attention to personnel issues often unjustified.

people, employees, personelOf course, when managers pay attention to their people it includes systems and processes as well. Each problem eventually finds its way to an employee who makes mistakes, complains or is bothered by something. A system is not capable of reporting problems to the manager. That is why it makes sense to always first explore which improvements are possible within the systems, processes or procedures. If things cannot entirely be solved at the ‘technical’ level, only then is it time to find out what still needs to be done at the ‘people’ level.

Based on the above, every manager will have to determine to what extent their focus needs to shift. If the focus does indeed need to shift in the direction of ‘systems and processes,’ then things won’t become easier for the manager. Consequently he/she can’t blame the employees any more

Looking for driving forces

Shifting the focus to systems and processes can also go too far. People still remain the organization’s capital and remain worthy of the manager’s attention because 15% of problems are really attributable to people.

Working to improve processes only makes sense when the work is done in close collaboration with the people who execute the tasks because they have the information, which is invisible to management but essential to implementing improvements. Look together with the employees for the driving forces and those actions, which lead to structural improvements. Management can indicate the priorities of topics, the relevant weight of each topic and which goals are to be accomplished with the organization.

First look for technical solutions, before you decide to change the behaviour of employees

Employees can indicate what they consider to be realistic possibilities and which obstacles they are experiencing. Employees and managers clearly have different perspectives. That’s why managerial decisions are, often misunderstood by employees.

With all the information on the table, employees tend to better understand the managerial proposals and decisions, which in turn are better adjusted to practical implementation and therefore easier to implement.

This is how managers accomplish real structural improvements, while simultaneously giving employees a real sense that they are considered an important part of the organization. This is always time well spent.

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