Ponderances of Steve

September 22, 2010

Blame the System

Filed under: Coaching — Steve LeBlanc @ 5:44 pm

pointing boy

We live in a culture of blame. That’s not always a bad thing. Blame does point us to questions of who broke something and who should fix it. Managers, teachers and parents all try to instill values of personal responsibility in their charges. Much of that instilled value involves feeling bad. We want those people to feel bad when they mess up. Especially something for which they have agreed to be responsible. We want them to blame themselves when things go wrong. We feel better when others feel “bad enough” for what they did. We may even want them to grovel.

Now it takes a lot of time and effort to discern who was responsible for an outcome, and to what degree. One approach – if everyone just takes 100% responsibility for whatever went wrong, then we can all get back to work. “If only I had done my part, this would never have happened.”

Of course, it rarely works out that way. Some people consistently take far less blame than we’d like them to, while others take too much. Indeed, we often define our best people as those who pick up the slack where others have dropped it. And as long as the job is getting done, management rarely feels the need to confront those dropping the ball, letting standards slide and having things fall between the cracks. As a result, those who frequently pick up after others often feel resentful, but may be afraid to complain. And those who regularly get picked up after have a false sense of how good or successful they are at their jobs. No news is good news, particularly in organizations who don’t actively encourage feedback.

When taking responsibility requires that we feel bad, we have moved into blame. Where we have lots of blame, we have lots of fear, guilt and shame, thus creating a fear-based organization. Problem is, we don’t learn well in the presence of guilt and fear. The fear that comes out of blame will even inhibit problem solving abilities. A systems theory view of productivity can show us how to blame the system itself, instead of each other, thereby reducing fear. A simple definition of a system might include the values, procedures, rewards and communications of an organization. When you blame a person, you may feel better, but you forget to look at how the system has contributed to their actions.

So while there is a certain workaholic satisfaction that comes from hoping everyone will take 100% responsibility, it never really works out as well as we hope. Those who take too much responsibility burn themselves out, resulting in what we call work anorexia or work avoidance. Taking too much responsibility for events over which we have little control or power always leads to depression. People regularly try to take too much responsibility in a fear based organization. Unfortunately, the best you can ever get out of such a system is basic compliance. If you want more than compliance, if you want excellence, you will have to eliminate fear from the organization. (See point #8 in Deming’s 14 points, Drive fear out.)

Given how much guilt and personal shame are woven into the fabric of religion, parenting, management and law, it is hard to imagine an effective way of getting things done without them. It’s hard to imagine how anything lasting and good can come out of an organization that proclaims, “We never want our people to feel bad about tasks where they have underperformed.”

But that’s exactly what we are called to do in a systems theory view of productivity. Rather than focus on who did what wrong and how bad they should feel, we focus on the whole system. We ask, how has the system failed us? Starting with the assumption that everyone wants to do a good job, we ask the question, “How has the system made it difficult or even impossible for them to do good? How has the system failed to support the individual success of the players?” In all fairness, not everyone will be a good fit for your new non-blaming organization. However, addressing that does not require blaming anyone.

Once we are free to look at and address where the system has failed us, we can let go of our blame and resentment for our co-workers. I propose that we need blame. We are meaning-seeking creatures and as such, we need to blame someone or something for what went wrong. Blame people and you demoralize them and make them afraid. When you blame the system, no one gets hurt and things gently improve. Blame yourself too much and you get depressed. Blame the system and you stimulate the problem solving abilities of the group. Let’s put the blame back where it belongs. It’s no ones fault how the system currently works. It just sort of turned out that way. Our job is to improve the system while honoring those who work in and around it. Let’s all just blame the system.

This has been a gentle introduction to systems theory, with brief reference to W. Edwards Deming, father of Total Quality Management (TQM). #PLENK2010



  1. Hi Steve,
    Very interesting post on blame – so you propose that we need blame, and the best way is to blame the system.” The concept of Drive out fear as proposed by Dr Deming had been received with skepticism in the real world, as I perceived it. I am not sure how a blaming culture as envisaged would stimulate problem solving abilities in the group. What I understand is the blaming culture could destroy the relationships in teams, and would eventually lead to a dysfunctional organisation if left unattended. Would blaming (at least the system) be better than not doing anything when something has gone wrong and no one is taking any responsibility on the mistakes or issues? I agree that:”Our job is to improve the system while honoring those who work in and around it.” Would the challenge be: Who are the ones to change the system? How would one improve the system?
    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Comment by suifaijohnmak — September 25, 2010 @ 4:30 am | Reply

  2. @suifaijohnmak (John)

    I am so glad you liked it. You raise some interesting questions. Yes, I believe we need blame, but perhaps only for a transitional period, until we arrive at a place of no blame. In the mean time, we need a target to point at. A funny thing happens when we begin to move our blame from people in the system to the system itself. First, it is easier to look for solutions because there is only process. There is no longer any personal contempt. Without contempt, there is less defensiveness and the brain works better. Once we get good at addressing the needs for change in the system, we begin to stop thinking in terms of blame all together. Eventually, it becomes more fun to fix the system than to blame it or anyone in it. Shifting the blame to the system begins a process of transforming a blaming culture into a healthy one.

    I agree that Deming’s work has met with mixed reviews over the years. But it is easy to underestimate the profound impact his work had on so many companies and industries. It helps to remember that much of what Deming said was a counterpoint to the writings of Drucker, the self-proclaimed father of American management. Drucker won the popularity contest and I admire what he achieved. But more and more companies are beginning to look beyond a simple ROI model, to a more humanistic one. Toyota built its reputation on what they learned from Deming. Years later Ford turned around many of its quality problems, in spite of violating principle 10 (Eliminate slogans) only to reject Deming’s legacy a few years later.

    What makes Demings work so difficult to rally around is that it consistently breaks down ego barriers. And for some people, that’s asking a little too much. But if we take a company like Zappos, we can see lots of Deming’s work in there. To look at their business plan as they launched, you would never have invested. Cultural shifts in business do not always occur in small increments, but rather sometimes show up in a massive change in world view. Before their great success, no one would have followed the advice of Tony Hsien, the president of Zappos. It just didn’t make sense. Treat your own employees better than your customers? But after people saw how well it worked for him, he now travels around the country talking to people about how to transform their own companies and industries.

    Your final question is great, even if hard to answer: Who are the ones to change the system? How would one improve the system? While Deming would say that it must come from the top, as a strong unified vision, others have seen amazing things happen from the bottom up. The book, Intrapreneuring in Action by Pinchot and Pellman comes to mind. Certainly it depends on how much dominant control is exerted from the top.

    One of my favorite lines is this: There is no such thing as a good idea, only good implementation. When delivered well, a proposal to make the workplace safer and easier to work in stands a better chance to accepted. When delivered poorly, it may not matter what the idea was. What you say may not be as important as how you say it. Then there are those who just make the change without asking permission, affirming it is easier to get forgiveness than permission.

    Comment by Steve LeBlanc — September 27, 2010 @ 1:45 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks Steve for this wonderful sharing.
    “Shifting the blame to the system begins a process of transforming a blaming culture into a healthy one.” Well said, and I agree all. It seems that top down (strategic plans, Management with Objectives and action plans) and bottom up (quality improvement teams or circles) both have their advantages, so far if they foster work towards achieving the goals and help the company and employees to grow and develop. Certainly it depends on how much dominant control is exerted from the top. Yes, that is important too.

    There is no such thing as a good idea, only good implementation. That is a pragmatic view. May be action (implementation that give rise to achievement) speaks louder than words (ideas). How would “good” ideas be generated? A typical example is our MOOC (PLENK), how would we achieve good implementation of ideas? Does it relate back to people?


    Comment by suifaijohnmak — September 27, 2010 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

  4. @suifaijohnmak (John)

    How would “good” ideas be generated? In our MOOC (PLENK), how would we achieve good implementation of ideas?

    Yes I saw that thread in the PLENK class and did not chime in. Tricky issue. Perhaps one way to define a “good idea” is one which tickles your brain and inspires people to think. In that sense, anything that encourages fun discussion on the idea is great. My concern is that we become too attached to our ideas, preventing them from evolving naturally. You see this in a lot of startups, where they were so in love with their original idea, they failed to see that the audience was more interested in their “side product” than then main one. Those who fail to grab the new opportunity may not survive. You might want to follow some startup blogs to see how they handle this notion of capturing good ideas. On twitter see @dharmesh http://twitter.com/dharmesh

    So to achieve good implementation, it makes sense to have some handy grounding questions available. A sort of refining set of questions. This is the challenge of innovation (See #innochat on Twitter). But you must be careful. You want to encourage a wild and wonderful flow of ideas on the front end, and then proof them later. If you proof too soon, you kill the flow. You may even damage relationships. I don’t have the right formula. But it’s a pattern of fire up, expand and then refine.

    One idea would be to have a set of what I’ll call “bridge questions”, ones which trigger interdisciplinary discussion: How would this idea work in business? How would this work in K12? What would we need to modify in order to fit the new context? How might we apply the idea to scientific enquiry? How might we make a board game out of it? How does it apply to friendships? Regardless of how silly this idea looks, what good might we salvage from it?


    Comment by Steve LeBlanc — September 27, 2010 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  5. Well said. “Blaming” the system is really the same thing as looking for the root cause. Blaming people, is not an affective way to improve. You need to fix the system so that the conditions that lead to failure are removed. Here are a couple of posts on the topic from my blog http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2006/05/03/find-the-root-cause-instead-of-the-person-to-blame/

    Comment by John Hunter — October 29, 2010 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

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