It can be easy to take shots at HR. But HR didn’t create our systems, and HR can’t fix our systems. HR is not the solution because human resources are not the problem. It’s the systems in which these humans are trapped.

Take a moment and think really hard about the problems your agency is facing. Now, visualize all of the people in your agency gone and magically replaced by a new crew (some with private-sector experience, for all you outsourcing fans). Some you will undoubtedly miss, and some you will have wished you could help pack. But now think back to the problems: Will they be gone too? How long before you are back in the exact same spot?

This is the fundamental question facing those wishing to improve the performance of government: Is our problem a people problem?

If you believe government’s problem is a capability problem, then your focus and energy will be spent on improving the people of government. This approach has brought us such hits as:

  • Performance appraisals
  • Pay for performance
  • Performance coaching
  • Personality inventories (are you an owl or a goose?)
  • Who Moved My Cheese?
  • 360-degree feedback
  • Employee of the Month
  • “Whale Done” (patting outstanding performers on the nose like a whale trainer — seriously)
  • Throwing Fish
  • Contests and prizes
  • Individual Development Plans

Soft rock not your taste? Here are some heavy-metal hits:

  • Downsizing
  • Outsourcing
  • Rightsizing
  • Performance bell curves (forced distributions of employee performance)
  • Rehiring for the same jobs

You’ve probably owned some of these records. They have different album covers and different lead singers, but they all sing the same tune: We will get better when you get better, and I as your boss am the one to help you.

(Incidentally, surveys from the Office of Personnel Management, Gallup and Harris Interactive suggest that employees don’t think their bosses are in a position to help at all. Only 66 percent of federal employees think their boss is doing a good job; 24 percent of all employees would fire their boss if they could; and 53 percent of employees feel their bosses are less than honest. Who better to develop you as a person than someone you distrust, think is incompetent and would fire if you could? We’ll discuss this topic more in our podcast.)

Anyway, if all HR complaints really are just different verses to the same song, let’s listen to the lyrics a little closer.

There is perhaps no better studio for studying human behavior than a DMV. Unfortunately, most people’s perceptions of public-sector employees are driven by their DMV experience. Fortunately, in most places, that experience is improving all the time. Still, after an hour in one line, another hour in the correct line, two more trips and a migraine, you can’t help but scream, “What’s wrong with these people?!”

Clearly it must be a people problem, right? Well, let’s follow that assumption through to its logical conclusions. If we assume the DMV experience is a people problem, then we are saying that:

  1. DMV offices nationwide have set out to recruit the surliest, grumpiest, slowest, laziest, unsympathetic people they could find.
  2. These employees wake up each day trying to figure out how to aggravate the most people possible with the least amount of effort.
  3. The employees are trying to make each transaction take longer than it should.
  4. The manager of the office is intentionally understaffing to create the most stressful workplace imaginable.
  5. The people who designed the forms tried to make the process as complex as possible.
  6. The people who programmed the computer system intentionally coded it in such a way that employees can’t find any information quickly.
  7. The people writing the policy manuals keep making changes to intentionally confuse the field office staff.

What a grand conspiracy of people all working together to do the worst job possible! And even more, they have coordinated and replicated this conspiracy nationwide! It can’t be coincidence that all this happened at every DMV in every jurisdiction. Clearly we need to clean house! Bring in some new blood! Get better people!

I learned the answer to this “people problem” question firsthand. As part of a leadership team overseeing 168 DMV offices, our director thought it was important that we get out of our offices and experience what front-line workers experienced. So we each spent one day a month working in DMV offices performing actual DMV work. The combined advanced degrees of that leadership team eclipsed a dozen. The combined damage we did each month was immeasurable. We returned to central office each time collectively shaking our heads and wondering how the employees did it. With all the system obstacles placed before them — bad technology, ambiguous policy, conflicting mandates, understaffing and “good management ideas” from HR — they still managed to do what we couldn’t: serve the customer. We walked away from that experience saying the same thing I hear so many outsiders who join government say when asked what has been the most surprising: “I can’t believe how hard the people work.”

These people had been through every HR initiative imaginable. They had been empowered, held accountable, 360-degreed and personally developed. They had career paths, development plans, training academies and customer service awards. What they didn’t have was a system with the capacity to serve the deluge of customers that showed up each day. The system — the collection of laws, policies, processes and procedures, plus the employees, management, customers and the environment — was broken.

In the offices we managed (which were an equally dysfunctional mixture of government-run and private enterprises) wait-times often exceeded an hour, and fewer than half the visitors could complete their transactions in one visit. Stress levels were high for staff and customers alike.

When we finished our improvement efforts, the results were dramatically different. Wait-times dropped to under 10 minutes. Ninety percent of customers were served in one visit. And the staff was much happier. We received floods of complimentary letters about our new “friendly, customer-oriented” staff. They were the same staff we had always had.

So what magic HR elixir did we have them drink? Did we switch their performance appraisal from a five-point scale to a four-point scale? Did we send them to charm school? Did we find a better reward or increase our pats on the back? No. We used their experience and insight to fix the system. We:

  1. Eliminated as much of the traffic into the office as possible by changing renewal frequency and dates as well as allowing routine transactions to be done online.
  2. Studied the root causes of why people had to make more than one visit to complete a transaction, and we altered policies and procedures as well as built collaborative relationships with other agencies, insurance companies and auto dealers to allow us to find missing documents at the counter.
  3. Analyzed traffic patterns to study peaks and valleys, and implemented variable shifts to better match predictable flows.
  4. Recognized that most DMV lines are the result of random variation. That is, there is as much probability that 40 people will show up at a DMV at the same time as four people. If four people showed up, no problem. If 40 showed up, the office was toast for the rest of the day. The offices implemented a solution that I wrote about extensively here.
  5. Worked with customers to simplify renewal notices and worked with employees to simplify policy manuals.

I turn once again to my all-time favorite quote, from the great systems thinker Peter Scholtes: “All of the empowered, motivated, teamed-up, self-directed, incentivized, accountable, reengineered, and reinvented people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system. When the system is functioning well, these other things are all just foofaraw. When the system is not functioning well, these things are still only empty meaningless twaddle.”

Blunt, but dead-on. Changing the system in turn changes behavior. Changing behaviors does not fix a dysfunctional system.

The problem with government is one of capacity, not capability. Capacity comes from our systems. Our people are dedicated, hard-working, intelligent and creative. Our systems are backlogged, CYA’d, inflexible and overrun with customers. The future of government is not to squeeze more work out of our people, but rather to increase the capacity of our systems so that the capability of our great workers can occur unimpeded.

Important Numbers to Remember

  • 5 percent: the amount of time in a process or a system in which work is actually occurring. Think about the key systems of your organization, whether it’s permitting, filling vacancies, distributing licenses, passing ordinances, creating standards or developing IT applications. From a given customer’s perspective, work occurs on their transaction typically less than 5 percent of the total time. For example, it may take six weeks to get a building permit, but the combined efforts of the engineering staff typically adds up to a few days. It takes 60 days to get reimbursed for your travel expenses, but the amount of actual work required to process one is a matter of minutes. Where did all the time go? The system. The individual efforts of the employees make up but a fraction of the time customers experience. So if we are going to increase the organization’s capacity to do more good, where should we look? People or system?
  • 6 percent: the percentage of problems in an organization that cannot be attributed to the system. This number was offered by W. Edwards Deming in his discussion of improvement opportunities. Deming said that 94 percent of problems and opportunities lie in the system. Which means, conservatively, that people problems are, at best, 6 percent of our problem. And according to the Office of Personnel Management, 4 percent of total federal employees are fired for performance issues each year. Which means we only have about 2 percent bad apples left, assuming state and local practices are similar. Again, if we are going to increase the organization’s capacity to do more, where should we look? People or system?

The efforts of people make up 5 percent of the time in the system and less than 6 percent of the dysfunction. So why does it take up 90 percent of our management agenda? Because people are visible and systems are not. People miss deadlines, spread rumors and make annoying suggestions. People get our attention. Systems are invisible. They snake from cubicle to cubicle, up the stairs and across the street. They evolve over time and are hard to pin down. It’s unclear who owns them. Systems are intangible, so they are often unmanageable.

The solution? Make the systems visible. Expose your pipes. Find the critical ones that are the heart of your agency’s mission. And for each:

  1. Define the system. Where does it start? Where does it stop? What is its purpose?
  2. Interact with the users of the system. What do they want? What issues are they experiencing with the system? How would they improve it?
  3. Analyze the system. Where does all the time go? Where does the customer get stuck? Where do mistakes happen? Where do we have legislative obstacles?
  4. Redesign the system involving the people who are in the system.

Sound like a lot of work? Surely it’s less than:

  1. Creating clear performance standards and expectations.
  2. Finding a way to objectively measure an individual’s contribution.
  3. Agreeing in writing on this year’s objective performance goals.
  4. Conducting six month performance review meetings.
  5. Conducting weekly one-on-ones.
  6. Documenting each conversation.
  7. Distributing “attaboy” tokens to buy cruddy logo pens from the agency store.
  8. Separating the individual’s performance from that of the overall unit and system.
  9. Calculating the percentage bonus the outstanding individual should achieve for performance that can only be attributed to them.
  10. Arguing with HR and senior management when they tell you only 3 percent of people can be outstanding because they only have enough money to pay bonuses to 3 percent of the workforce.
  11. Explaining to the employee why they are no longer outstanding, even though all evidence is to the contrary.
  12. Recruiting and hiring someone to fill the vacancy of the disgruntled employee you just created.

And you have to do those 12 steps for every employee in the agency!

So is it the people or the system? If it’s the people, the fate of your agency rests on the collective development of 2,000 individuals. If it’s the system, the fate of your agency rests on radically improving the 2-3 really vital processes your agency performs. The lights are on, the crowd is ready and you hit the stage. Which song are you going to play?

*Originally published as A Broken Record, (Public Great @, July 13, 2010)

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