Systemic problems in your company - 13 powerful ways to spot them

Systemic problems in your company - 13 powerful ways to spot them

Systemic problems often have a feeling of a roundabout. Round and round we go – solving the same problems again, bringing in new people who get the same results as the last people.

It was Edward Deming who suggested that 94% of the success of a business, comes down to the system. The other 6%? – The People.

Yet it’s common to find managers working with their people only – and not fixing systemic problems.

In this post and video I share ways to spot these systemic problems, so you can fix them for good. (Or at least put the evidence in front of those with levers to pull – execs and managers)

I’d love to be able to share how you can fix these systemic problems, but the reality is, until you have studied and found out what the problem is, there is no obvious solution.

It would be remiss of me to provide answers without knowing what is causing the systemic problems.

But what I can do, is provide you with some simple patterns to look for in your company. Once you see these patterns you’ll have some clues as to where to focus your energy and attention when it comes to solving systemic problems.

I will use examples where possible and give as much clarity as I can, but the reality is you will need to do the studying and work. And then implement what you can, to address the underlying problems.

Leaders obviously hold the biggest levers to pull to fix these systemic problems – think budgets, rules, behaviours, system processes, goals of the business and more. It’s why I prefer to work with leaders when releasing agility – they created the system problems in the first place – so they can fix them.

But no matter what level you are in an organisation, you can always spot them and point people to them. You may even have the relationship influence to do something about them.

So let’s get cracking.

1 – Tragedy of the commons

Tragedy of the commons is an economic idea that points to resources being used by individuals (for their own intentions) that deplete these resources at the expense of the wider business (or system).

This is very common in business. Individual leaders and managers trying to achieve their own goals and aims, at the expense of the wider system. This could be because there are competing goals that don’t align, so managers are pulling on resources and people at the expense of the wider good.

It could be that there are very few people in the business who can do the work, or do good work. I see this a lot – where only a small percentage of the workforce are experienced or talented enough to achieve the business goals. This points to weak management and leadership in dealing with low performance.

As a result, this small group of people are in high demand – and they burn out through committing to helping everyone. Systemic problems form as a result of people and resources getting burned out.

The obvious solution is to train more people, deal with low performance, align work better and force cooperation at a management and leadership level.

I’ve seen this in tech companies where there aren’t enough test environments or servers. Developers, testers, customer support and sales are all competing over shared test environments to do their job. It results in overloaded environments, delays to release and a general level of infighting that isn’t needed.

The obvious solution is to provide more resources, but there is a cost with this. This cost needs balancing against the delays caused by the shared resource.

2 – Growth at all cost

“Growth at all cost” is a mantra I’ve heard too many leaders spout.

So, they grow the business at all costs – and the major effect is a slow down in delivery through confusion and the burning out of staff.

The organisation grows so quickly that there is a general lack of direction and poor delivery. The natural tendency for leaders and managers is to exert more control on the business. But the more they push, the more the system pushes back.

Pretty soon they hire hoards of project managements and delivery grinds to a halt through governance boards, weekly reporting that consumes everyones time, steering committees, target operating models, off-the-shelf frameworks and the like.

Systemic problems are made even worse by the chaos and a focus on growth, rather a focus on effectiveness then scaling.

The obvious solution is to grow at a sustainable pace – but try telling that to a well invested leadership team. Growth is hard to manage, but growing at all costs creates an environment where very little often gets done without the impact taking its toll on staff.

3 – Shifting the burden

Systemic problems can be spotted by seeing where the burden is being shifted and why.

Are leaders and managers making decisions in their ivory towers that have terrible consequences for others? Are they following these decisions to understand the impact they are having on the business (system)?

Are contractors, consultants and third party suppliers being brought in to solve problems that only leaders and managers can? There are plenty of third party companies who will take on such burden for the high day rates or contract value. I see this everywhere – promises of delivery that cannot be delivered due to a broken system of work.

This is because leaders and managers are shifting the burden to other people; other people who are always going to over promise what they can do when large chunks of cash are on offer.

Are your managers and leaders relying on software and technology to solve problems that are related to people? Another form of shifting the burden. Think Learning Management Software, CRM systems, People Management tools – all useful if they solve a problem, pointless if the problems aren’t yet fully understood.

Are your leaders addicted to off the shelf agile frameworks or other ways of working, that come packaged up and ready to be deployed? Only to find they’re hard to deploy, they don’t fit the business model, people don’t know why you’re rolling them out and they simply slow the whole business down?

All forms of shifting the burden.

4 – Escalation

Another pattern to look for is people escalating issues through the management chain. Heck, in one company the CEO was copied in on disputes, decisions and work that they had no need to be.

You see leaders and managers immediately escalating issues to other leaders and managers to get a resolution. This often results in prioritised work being delayed or dropped, processes being skipped and confusion over what’s important.

The side effect is delays to company strategy plans, customer deliverables and more – all because people are escalating outside of the existing process.

  • Why is that? Does the current process not work?
  • Are there competing goals and priorities?
  • Are there failures in delivery that need rapid rework?
  • Are there people in your team who don’t know what they are doing, so people go around them?
  • Why are teams competing with each other? Why are they throwing stones at each other? Is there pressure coming from somewhere?
  • Why are teams deconstructing each other and blaming each other?

All forms of escalation – and all point to the fact something deeper and more painful is happening in the organisation. Tread carefully when looking at this one.

5 – Rule and process evasion can cause systemic problems

Are people skipping the processes and rules? Why?

When people avoid the rules it’s a sign the rules aren’t working for them. The key is to understand why.

  • Are the processes poor and not helpful? Are they slow and cumbersome?
  • Do people simply not want to follow the rules?
  • Are there any consequences for not following rules? If not, why not?
  • What is the impact of skipping process or not following rules?
  • Why should people follow the rules? And has that been communicated well?

As you can see, there are lots of questions to start asking when you see people evading rules and processes. The trick is to understand why this is happening – it will point you to problems that can be addressed.

People don’t actively set out to break rules and be anarchic at work – there is something driving that and when people do, they can create systemic problems.

6 – The wrong goals and weak goals

A sign of systemic problems not being addressed is when leaders and managers are setting the wrong goals.

It’s easier and tempting to set goals that don’t address the real problems. Goals that are unattainable in the current system. Goals that skirt around the very problems everyone knows exist. Goals that push for growth and far reaching sales targets when the staff are barely able to deliver the current targets. Goals that address symptoms of problems – not the problems themselves.

Goals in a business should address the gap between the True North and where the business currently is. The gap between the two, when combined with a plan to address the obstacles, is a strategy.

It could be leaders and managers don’t have a True North, but the chances are they’re simply not leaning in to the current reality of where the business is. They are too disconnected, or simply trying to bury their heads in the sand to avoid facing hard issues to solve.

It results in a completely wrong set of goals. Or goals that are so weak and watered down that they sound like business as usual.

I see this a lot. Ambitious goals that aren’t grounded in reality. Or goals that are so pointless it doesn’t warrant the time to write them down. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot. Ambitious but stretching. Grounded with some sense of realism but not hindered by the current reality too much. It’s hard.

It’s a classic sign to look for. It points to any number of reasons – but the main one I see – is that leaders and managers simply haven’t spent time studying how work flows (or doesn’t) and what the current problems really are.

When leaders and managers understand the system they govern and what is stopping growth and delivery, they can set a strategy in place to unleash agility and let everyone bring their best strengths in to play.

Anyone can play their part in studying the system. I encourage everyone to staple themselves to work (metaphorically, not physically), draw this process out and bring leaders and managers to it – to show them how work flows (or doesn’t). Only then can people see the reality of what it takes to bring value to their customers – and fix any problems that stand in the way.

A good strategy addresses the current reality. A bad strategy always has the wrong goals – or goals that are so pointless it’s not even worth writing them down.

7 – Obsessions to external solutions

This is another form of shifting the burden, where leaders and managers are addicted to external solutions.

They reach for off-the-shelf solutions in the hope they will solve problems. They are addicted to external suppliers and consultants, in the hope that external people can help them solve problems they don’t understand. They utilise every new technology in order to solve problems – tech rarely solves problems in business unless the problems have a known solution.

Tech often amplifies the problems and makes the problems harder to solve.

If leaders and managers understand their problems, and external solutions will work – go for it. But it’s likely almost all problems can be solved by the very people who created them in the first place – the leaders and managers.

A classic sign of systemic problems not being dealt with is when a company bloats with external suppliers. Often leaders and managers hide behind vagueness like “it’s cheaper to use them” or “they are experts in this field” – and maybe sometimes this is true. But in my experience, these are simply ways to justify not leaning in to the very problems leaders and managers created in the first place.

After all, who would want to raise their hand and say “we created this problem”? It’s easier to call on external solutions and pass the burden of failure to them. Trust me, I’ve seen this so much it’s frightening – well, not for the external solution providers 🙂

8 – Problems keep coming back

This one shouldn’t need listing but it’s so rampant that I’ve included it here.

Round and round we go solving the same problem (or slight variants of it), over and over again.

The simple reality is; if a problem keeps coming back after we’ve solved it, we haven’t solved it.

Yet it’s very common for leaders and managers to put energy and attention in to solving the same problems over and over again. People are merely solving the symptoms of the problem – not the problem itself.

It’s why I always roll out 5 whys techniques to get to the root or heart of the problem. They are hard to conduct and tricky to manage. The outcomes are hard for some people to swallow – but they get to the root of problems that pop up. Don’t just do a technique like this for recurring problems. Do it for everything that doesn’t go to plan – and address the root causes of it.

A word of advice when running a 5 whys. At each point that we ask why, we get an answer – and we keep going until we get to the root. Most people only spend time fixing the root cause. But all of the other answers point to ways to improve the system. Address each one and you will find the world of work gets better for all.

Fixing problems is part of business. But be sure to fix the underlying problem, not the symptoms. After all, a system thinking idea is that when we fix symptoms only, we are creating the problems of tomorrow.

9 – The problem has a pattern

In one company I worked in, the customer support team were inundated with the same support calls every Monday. At 8am on a Monday a large percentage of the customer base would call or email in to say they have been locked out of the system – due to forgetting their password or entering an incorrect one several times.

The support team manager worked hard to resolve these quickly and put together a glowing report for the execs on how efficiently the team can now deal with these issues. The execs rejoiced. They’d missed the point.

The more customers we put on the platform, the more intense these request would come in. But the support team dealt with them well.

The pattern highlights a problem. The pattern was obvious, frequent and easy to predict. The solution wasn’t to deal with these calls as efficiently as possible – that was addressing the symptom. The real solution was to study what was happening and turn it off.

So, I studied the problem and suggested we simply add a reset password function to the software. A small, cheap fix. It was approved – we implemented it. The calls stopped.

When a systemic problem has a pattern and it’s frequent and the pain of it is high – we must fix the systemic problem behind it.

If something happens once a year and the impact is minimal, we may choose not to address the root cause. But when something has high impact, or is frequent and predictable – we should choose to address the root cause.

Turning off these issues (as in fixing them) allows us to spend time, energy, money and attention on other things.

Observe, study, gather data, balance costs and investment, and put this in front of leaders and managers.

10 – Small problems that occupy a lot of time

A classic sign that systemic problems are not being addressed is when people spend a large amount of time talking about seemingly inconsequential problems. Tiny details, or tiny problems that occupy people intensely.

It’s probably a symptom of something wider problem. And that wider problem is hard, gnarly and challenging to fix. So, people spend time worrying about the symptoms. The symptoms might be under their control; they can do something about this small thing. The larger, wider problem is likely across functional boundaries and requires bigger levers to pull.

We should observe these instances and study what the wider problem is.

If you have big levers to pull to make a change – do so (all leaders and managers have access to these). If not, study, observe, get data and present this to leaders and managers. If they choose not to do anything about it…well, you tried. And keep gathering data.

Every time leaders and managers don’t fix the wider systemic problems – you and your teams will likely spend more time and energy on dealing with the symptoms.

11 – The culture won’t allow it

  • “We don’t talk about that here”.
  • “That would never work here”.
  • “That’s not what we do”.
  • “We couldn’t possibly solve that problem”.
  • “We’re always too busy to improve”.

These are all examples of “perceived culture”. A norm that has existed in the business that stops people addressing the real problems. People use these perceived cultures (behaviours) as a way of not addressing the real issues.

Sometimes through fear, sometimes because they like problems hanging around, sometimes because they simply don’t know how to communicate effectively.

What would happen if someone did address the issue? Or did tackle that gnarly problem? Or did do something amazing to make the workplace better? In most cases – nothing at all except improve the world of work.

But these perceived cultures are strong. They guide interactions, actions and behaviours.

I see this often – a culture of just accepting a poor performing processes, because nobody has ever challenged this perceived culture. It just takes a few people to start doing something different to show others it’s not scary.

Now of course, go steady – there really are leaders and managers out there who don’t want to see their world improved.

But it’s rarely the case. Sometimes it just takes someone to behave differently. To study the real problems and make lasting change. To build support for improving the world of work.

Mostly, it just takes someone to study the real problems and present them to others in a compelling and interesting way. And when this happens – you can start to break down these myths of perceived culture.

12 – Stress and pressure can cause systemic problems

It’s not uncommon to see systemic problems caused by stresses and strains.

In one company I worked in, the leaders and managers would all come back from their monthly board meeting angry, annoyed, impetuous and demanding. They’d had a grilling. The investors wanted better returns. The board (so far removed from the current reality) couldn’t understand why delivery was stalled. yada yada.

It’s very real.

And these stresses and strains change people’s behaviours. They can distort the system and cause any number of the above realities. People skip process, people evade the rules, people “show progress” by fixing symptoms and not problems.

People set easy to achieve goals. People deplete even more resources and other people. People spend time talking about minor problems to show that work is being done.

People will do almost anything to reduce the stress and pressure. It takes resolve and commitment and good communication skills to hold tight to a well thought out plan and strategy, when the pressure mounts.

In any organisation when I hear the words “we must show progress”, I cringe.

Showing progress and making progress aren’t always the same things.

Whenever we have to justify our existence by “showing progress”, we have to ask why?

  • Why do we have to “show” progress in reports, governance boards and the like?
  • Is our purpose not clear?
  • Do we have the right measures?

Surely, if we actually make progress we’ll demonstrate through smoother delivery, quicker onboarding and the like. If we have a good strategy and suitable measures in place – that progress will be evident.

The stresses from all around us morph behaviours. They change rational, nice human beings in to demanding tyrants. They affect everything.

Good leaders and managers keep their emotions in check. They don’t infect others with their own negative emotions. Instead they focus on the process, the delivery, the improvements and their people.

It’s easy to write that – much harder to do in practice. But when leaders and managers don’t – and their emotions over-ride them and others – they distort the system they are in supervision of. This may be short term. A blip. But all too often the pressures mount and the system distorts so much that all sense of professionalism can get lost.

You read about it every day. Leaders and managers behaving so badly you wonder how they ever got the job in the first place. Toxic work cultures, discrimination, awful business wide behaviours, delivery at all cost, divisive tactics…the list goes on.

Of course, not all of these instances are caused by stress and pressure. But when you see a company culture and system morphing rapidly – and many of the above patterns coming in to play – you potentially have a business that is steered by emotion – not well thought out strategies, plans and robust professional behaviours.

How do you change this? Hard. A change in leadership works 🙂 But so too does staying on point with data, study and professional behaviours.

13 – People get the same results

A classic sign of systemic problems is when you see good people being brought in to a business, and they get the same average or poor results as the people they replaced.

The results are governed mostly by the system, so it should come as no surprise that new people will get the same results as the last people.

The way to address this is to fix the system, not replace people. Saying that, good people will overcome a system, but often you need a few people, with levers to pull, to do this. A change of leadership works wonders in fixing a broken company. New managers who have a systems thinking outlook can revitalise a toxic work culture. One person on their own may struggle – not impossible, but harder.

It’s why I always encourage people to widen their awareness when they join a company. Find people who share the same values, are helpful, have levers to pull and can aid in fixing a broken system. Gather them together, gather evidence and data and put a plan in place.

Show people what a new way of working can look like. Role model great behaviours – and pretty soon you’ll be attracting other people who want this new change. It can take time.