Electronic Design

The System Isn't Always To Blame; Look At Who's Operating It

One of the misconceptions spawned by the dogma of Total Quality Management is that a company's problems always originate from the design of its management processes, and never from its people. While this is a delightfully humanistic philosophy, it betrays a dangerous misunderstanding of reality. The risk is that if you truly believe that outcomes are primarily determined by management processes, it follows inexorably that this is where you must focus most time and attention.

Let's do a reality check. Years ago I served as an officer on nuclear submarines. We worked to quality levels that were light years beyond six sigma. (We wouldn't tolerate 3.4 reactor meltdowns per million opportunities because it was considered very, very, very bad form to meltdown a reactor.) How did we achieve such high levels of quality? Our basic philosophy could be condensed to the idea that outcomes are always the product of the system and the people you use to operate it. We believed that no system was so foolproof that it could be operated by idiots.

As a result, we focused enormous attention on the selection, the training, and the ongoing screening of our people. Admiral Rickover personally interviewed every officer selected for the Navy Nuclear Power program. After selection, we put our people through a year of arduous training. On average, only half of those selected were able to complete the training. They were then sent to submarines where they had to requalify on the specific reactor plant of a specific submarine. This took another six to 12 months. But, it didn't stop there. Training was an everyday occurrence. Hardly a single day passed in which one didn't attend a lecture and perform some sort of emergency drill.

Every year, all of the operators would undergo a three-day examination by an external examining board. Ongoing standards were so tight that I would automatically lose my qualification to operate the reactor if I hadn't done so within the previous 30 days. While we had great management processes, they would have been useless without this focus on people.

Later, when I was a management consultant at McKinsey & Co., we had a similar philosophy. We employed rigorous selection processes, conducted ongoing training, and screened out those who didn't perform. We would routinely state that "our assets walk out the door every night." What's striking about every elite organization is that it's not the management systems that are elite, but rather the people.

So, what might you want to do? Take a look at how you personally spend your time. There's seldom a better investment than the careful selection of people for your organization. Once you have someone good, there's rarely a better investment than developing that individual. Furthermore, there's seldom a more difficult decision than deciding that you made a selection error and were incapable of developing one of your subordinates. If working on these tasks causes you to devote a little less time to reengineering your management process, you will probably be the better for it in the long run. Think of the quality of the outcome as the quality of the system multiplied by the quality of the people. If either of these factors is very low, then your outcome will suffer.

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