Volume 93, December 2008: Bad Systems, Good People

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2008 ISSN # 1545-8873

“All anyone asks for is a chance to work with pride.” — W. Edwards Deming

“The worst part about focusing on keeping out crappy people, however, is that it reflects a belief system that ‘the people make the place.’ The implication is that, once you hire great people and get rid of the bad ones, your work is pretty much done. Yet if you look at large scale studies in everything from automobile industry to the airline industry, or look at Diane Vaughn’s fantastic book on the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the well-crafted report written by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board the evidence is clear: The ‘rule of law crappy systems’ trumps the ‘rule of crappy people.’” —

“The average American worker has fifty interruptions a day, of which seventy percent have nothing to do with work.” — W. Edwards Deming

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does.” — W. Edwards Deming


  • What’s Hot in Leadership
  • Maintaining Yourself as a Leader
  • Frequently Asked Questions from Leaders
  • Educational Opportunities
  • Useful Websites & Newsletters
  • Articles/Publications

What’s Hot in Leadership

  • Systems thinking. Alignment of players in a common aim.
  • Understanding that poor systems are usually at fault for poor quality, not bad people.
  • Countering a culture of blame.
  • Using measurement to improve, not to judge.

Maintaining Yourself as a Leader

In our teaching at the Center for Continuous Improvement, we used the story that, “People generally do not come to work thinking, ‘What can I mess up today?’” They go to work hoping to do their best, in systems and processes that are broken. All their “best efforts” will not overcome poor quality.

Leaders must commit themselves for life to quality and productivity; they cannot delegate it. That means that they understand the systems they own, the meaning of variation, and barriers to pride in workmanship. They must design systems that build in quality and innovation. There is no substitute for knowledge.

Frequently Asked Questions

“How do I learn more about this topic?”
Read, think and discuss (see Exercises below):
W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis and The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education; Henry Neave’s The Deming Dimension; Bill Scherkenbach’s The Deming Route to Quality and Productivity; and Mary Walton’s The Deming Management Method.
It is essential to encourage learning and self-improvement for everyone in your organization, not just the leaders.
“What is wrong with inspiring people to work harder and do their best?”
These exhortations are usually aimed at the wrong people (i.e., not leadership), producing frustration, resentment, and loss of joy in work. Pushing people to achieve better quality, have zero defects, and improve productivity ties to a faulty assumption that if the workers would just put their backs to it, things would improve. The fact is that defects, high costs, and mistakes come from the “system,” which is management’s responsibility.
Awarding certain individuals over others, for results that the system produced, is also demoralizing. “Employee of the Year.” Merit pay. Teamwork does not thrive on an Annual Rating.
“How do you shift from a ‘Culture of Blame?’”
Change the language from “blame” to “contribution.” All behavior occurs within a system, all parts of which are by nature, interdependent. Each person involved has made a contribution to the problem and owns some responsibility. Begin exploring it that way.
The language shifts from being full of answers to being full of questions. What and how questions, not who and why. Speaking from the “I” perspective, not “You did …” Not right or wrong, just different. The practice of inquiry vs. advocacy (Peter Senge).

Exercises and Action Items

Holding in hand Deming’s 14 Points and System of Profound Knowledge, target a discussion on these questions:

  • Do we have silos? How do we overcome them?
  • What are our “defects”? How are we building them in?
  • Where is “fear” in our organization?
  • How do we measure “productivity?” How does the measurement improve productivity?
  • Where have we built expectations that people have no control over?

(also refer to questions on pp. 90-92, 156-166 of Out of the Crisis.)


The best educational opportunities are in the works of, and about, W. Edwards Deming (see Publications below).

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement now has free On-demand Courses and and an Open School, which teach many Deming- and quality-related topics.

Key Associates facilitates group experiences that teach Systems Thinking and the harmful effects of internal competition; also holds on-site courses on a number of quality topics.

When queried about “Bad Systems, Good People,” a Google search revealed these prominent themes (thus little education mentioned):

  • Why good people do bad/evil things
  • How bad things happen to good people
  • How recessions make good people do bad things
  • Some ideas on mechanical and systems malfunctions to blame for errors

Useful Websites & Newsletters

Dr. Deming defining a system: Dr. W. Edwards Deming and Profound Knowledge - Part 1.

Blog on when bad systems happen to good people: When Bad Systems Happen To Good People.

In defense of “business people”and an antidote for bad systems: Why Good People Do Bad Things in Business.

Keyzines on related topics: Spirit at Work, Organizational Culture, Lean Does Not Have to Be Mean, Employees as Customers, Dialogue: Thinking Together, Bureaucracy, Whither Quality, Picture of a Process, and Lean Organizations.



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