Who Is To Blame

Who is to blame? Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

Who is to blame? When things don’t turn out as expected, this is a common question. The failure must be because somebody didn’t perform as expected. In my Intel days I attended ‘after action reviews’, a more positive name than ‘post mortem’. The intention was generally the same, to figure out who screwed up. As I mention in my book, ‘Do Less, Lead More‘, it doesn’t have to be this way.

At the request of my boss Dan, we set up a weekly issue review. The intention was to identify the root cause of any major issues that occurred in Intel’s supply chain systems. We asked the responsible team to review what had happened and share with us their assessment of how they would eliminate the issue. At the time repeat issues were creating a lot of unnecessary work.

Finding Someone to Blame

At the first review, I wasn’t surprised when the team put the root cause down to human error. Somebody had screwed up and was to blame. Sometimes this indicated more training was required. Most often it pointed to somebody being sloppy, not following best practice. I was surprised when Dan dismissed the team’s assessment. He asked a key question. Why did the system allow this person to make an error? Dan’s point was very simple. People don’t come to work to deliberately screw up. How did the system allow the error to occur? How could the system be error proofed?

 What About Knowledge Work?

This example is pretty straightforward because there is a well defined system that ran Intel’s supply chain. But what about knowledge work where there is usually isn’t a well defined system? It turns out there usually is a system at play, we just don’t see it. Take a team that has trust issues. People no longer assume good intent, even well-meaning actions are treated suspiciously. This leads to further erosion of trust and so on.

In this example, the system is creating a negative spiral of reducing trust. The team don’t see it because they are in weeds, the system is playing them. All they can see are the others, who are to blame. Things can only get better when someone steps back and understand the system.

What system is playing your team and what do you need to change to improve your results?