Anointing heroes

super-heroDr Deming’s red bead experiment simply yet brilliantly shows that, when we rate and rank people, we are mostly rating and ranking the effect of the system on the people.

“Apparent performance is actually attributable mostly to the system that the individual works in, not to the individual…the so-called merit system introduces conflict between people and destroys co-operation. Emphasis goes to achievement of rank, merit, not on the work…judging a person, putting them into slots, does not help them to do a better job.” (Deming)

To illustrate this point – compare two people performing two different roles:

  • If you give me a job (let’s say focused 100% on ‘improvement’) in which I can look good and am enabled to help people then, guess what, I’ll be their hero;
  • If you give me a job in which I have to ‘shovel the proverbial sh1t’ (let’s say as an over stretched ‘worker’ being asked to achieve the impossible) then, guess what, I will hardly be noticed….unless I’m not making my arbitrarily-set numerical activity targets…in which case I will be dealing with even more pain.

…who’s the real hero?!

I think anointing certain people as heroes because of what the system enabled them to achieve is a very unhealthy practise (for the supposed heroes’ and for the rest).

After explaining to a colleague how ‘the system’ has a huge influence over what someone can achieve, she made a really great ‘aha’ comment back to me:

It goes something like this:

“…that explains why I couldn’t work out whether that project manager working for me was any good!    

  • on one project he was superb: great communications, fantastic results on time/ within budget etc.
  • on another project he seemed terrible: nothing was going right, completely off track and seemingly no ability to do anything about it.

I now understand that I was judging him when, in fact, I should have been considering what the system was allowing him to achieve – the first project had a clear sponsor and much backing, the second project was an organisational orphan with difficult people and many historic issues, a virtual hospital pass!”

I am a mathematician at heart and Dr Deming used a wonderful formula to explain the above…bear with me:

  • Let x be the contribution of an individual
  • Let y(x) be the effect of the system on his/ her performance
  • Finally, let’s suppose we could measure the complete result of a person’s performance – a dubious idea in itself….but for the sake of this post, let’s suppose we have a number for his/ her apparent performance, such as 8 mistakes in the year or sales of $800,000.

Then we have the equation        x + y(x) = 8

(i.e. the individual’s contribution combined with what the system enabled him/ her to accomplish will determine the outcome s/he can achieve)

Deming goes on to explain

“To rate the individual we need to know x. Unfortunately, there are two unknowns and only one equation. Johnny in the sixth grade knows that no one can solve this equation for x.

Yet people that use the merit system think that they are solving it for x. They ignore the other term y(x), which is predominant.”

Now, a standard response to the above from people working in a command-and-control system is as follows:

“…but some people really are rubbish and/or lazy… and the above allows them to use the ‘it’s the system’ thing as an excuse!”

A couple of thoughts back:

  • If someone isn’t capable of performing the role they are being asked to perform, then:
    • are we failing to develop them into this role? or, if we’ve (truly) done what we can here;
    • have we incorrectly put them into this role?
  •  If someone hasn’t got any interest in their role, then:
    • has this been ‘beaten out of them’ by the system? (a very common reality) or, if not;
    • have we misunderstood or, worse, not (properly) considered what motivates this person?

Rating and ranking them ignores and hides the above. It tries to make it their problem….but who is responsible for the environment in which they work?

2 thoughts on “Anointing heroes

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