The System is The Solution

If you want to be good at managing, then have a good management system. ‘The System.’  Talk about a cliché!! People throw around the term so much, and each applies a different meaning, all the while assuming that their meaning is your meaning.  [Take your coffee regular?] It’s as though whenever we use the term, we might as well apply yada yada yada… and it’s probably what most people heard no matter what was said.

This topic is too important to let it degenerate into a cliché. Management is too important to what we create and how we live.  So let’s start with some definitions for system:

  • a group of independent but interrelated elements comprising a unified whole: "a system of production,  distribution, and consumption keeps the country going"
  • a complex of methods governing behavior: "they operate under a system they created"
  • a process for obtaining an objective: "they devised a system that did not depend on a single individual"
  • a formula: “approach + deployment = results”

In its easiest description, a system connects the dots.  I like the reference in Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford in 2005:  “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”  That’s why we make plans and manage the execution of the plans, and why we change them when we see that the dots aren’t going to line up quite the way we intended.

There are lots of frameworks on which to base a management system. Quality wonks have abducted the issue as their own, and they love to fight about which flavor represents the pure faith (the one they adopted, of course) with all others being soulless heretics.  Rubbish.  Each framework offers a set of distinctions, perspectives that can help you see things you might not be seeing most days.  I have a favorite framework myself: the Baldrige criteria for performance excellence.  The group that first wrote in 1987, and have kept fresh ever since, that body of work are geniuses. Any system that starts with distinctions on leadership and ends up with an unequivocal examination of results is a work of art. In between there is a lot of insight into strategy, customers, information, processes, and most importantly (in my book, anyway), people.  Connect those dots and you win.

I contend that average people in a great system outperform great people in an average (or usually, no) system.  It’s because the system works for them, and through them.

It’s helpful to cite examples of organizations that operate through a system.  Some people object to professional sports teams as role models, but business is a team sport, so we might learn something.  The New England Patriots are often credited with having a system, and I don’t mean X’s and O’s on a chalk board.  It’s for managing talent within the constraints of a budget (salary cap) and optimizing the work processes (their playbook) that recognizes and taps the special skills of its people.  The New York Jets have made dramatic improvement in the past year, and many attribute it to coach Rex Ryan’s system, which includes his leadership and personality. Goldman Sachs has a system.  Say what you want about their corporate values, they have a system for seeing where the markets are moving (strategy), leveraging their brand (customer knowledge), attracting and retaining top-tier talent, and a framework that optimizes their returns (processes). Some Goldman alums move on to greater (financial) success, but many others never enjoy the spectacular results they achieved under the system.

Want an example of a powerful system that doesn’t work? Look at our federal government. A majority of voters want Barack Obama to effect a ‘change you can believe in’.  Whether or not you like his policies, most would say Washington is broken. We’re watching his frustration – and ours – at trying to intervene in a broken system, and we’re getting angrier about it. The system is driving, not the leader.  Systems drive the results more than people. Sure, a hero shows up from time to time, but depending on heroics to save the day is bad management, and you’ll lose most of the time.

Still, we need to remember that leaders and their people make a difference… they design and implement systems. Will having a system through which they operate be seen as a constraint… handcuffs?  People also want clarity and a means to sustain the right activities to achieve their targeted results.  Otherwise, they’re left with a series of disconnected dots where new ideas, strategies, processes all feel like interventions in the drift of daily existence.  Giving people a say in the design and operation of the system gives them the ownership to make it work.

If you see the system as only relevant for manufacturing or for producing the same mindless consistency over and over, you’re not seeing the possibilities.  Management systems are informed by lessons learned in the past, executed in the present, but are best designed with a focus on creating the future we want to have. Peoples’ actions are driven by how they see that future. [Hold that thought: more to follow.]

NEXT TIME: Is it just for production of known objectives, or can the system be used to innovate?