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You can't fix other people

...and 4 tips to help you move from blame to real progress.

I once coached someone in Lean Leaders who wanted to improve his agency's procurement process. We talked about procurement for half an hour before I realized something:

He didn't work in procurement.

He was frustrated with procurement, had ideas about what to do better, but he had no authority over procurement and no engagement or buy-in from the procurement team. For him, working on procurement was a non-starter, because you can't fix other people.

Every client I've ever worked with has a laundry list of people or things outside their control that they wish were different:

  • "Department X always drags their feet when we send them this approval."

  • "The hiring managers just won't take time to review things! Then they want it to be my problem!"

  • "It says what to do right there on the form. But people don't read."

Does that sound like anyone you know?

Yes, other people are annoying

I get frustrated by all these things, too! And here's the thing: You're right. Other people aren't focused on solving our problems for us, and they don't always do the thing we want them to do.

I always remember one of my first improvement projects: SF's Rec and Park department was having expensive maintenance issues in brand new buildings. The maintenance division said that the capital division was too focused on delivering a project for the lowest possible cost without considering long-term maintenance needs. Meanwhile, the capital division said that the problem was the maintenance yard, which wasn't showing up to meetings and providing feedback on the plans.

And here's the thing: They were both right. But blaming and finger pointing didn't get them closer to making anything better.

Of course other people are part of the problem. But blaming and finger pointing aren't part of the solution.

People don't want to be told what to do

No one likes to have someone come in from the outside and tell them to shape up. Think back to a time when someone came into your work and told you they knew better. How did that feel? Did it make you want to improve, or did it make you want to tell that person where to shove it?

You want to know the hardest places for us to do improvement work? It's where someone in the past has implemented what I like to call "bad lean." Where they have taken all the lean tools about process streamlining and identifying obstacles, and tried to use them as weapons to fix people instead of engaging people in problem-solving, and empowering them to change.

This is why PPI isn't in the habit of writing reports with recommendations: People don't want to be told what to do.

At best, this kind of dictatorial change is ineffective. But more often, it actually poisons people against the very idea of improvement.

So how can we do better? Here are four ways to move from blame to change.

1. Fix yourself first

You can't fix others. You can only fix yourself.

Blaming other people -- other departments or divisions, your customers, your staff, your boss -- is easy. Taking a close look in the mirror is hard. It takes courage and humility. And it's the only way to make meaningful improvement.

Taking a close look in the mirror takes courage and humility. And it's the only way to make meaningful improvement.

When Justine Hinderliter and I worked on time-to-hire improvement at the SF Public Utilities Commission, there was a major external stakeholder who held parts of the hiring process and refused to come to the table to help. This would have been a natural moment to throw up her hands, but Justine and her team pushed through and figured out what parts of the hiring process they could improve on their own. The result? They shaved over two months off time-to-hire. How? By fixing themselves first.

Fixing yourself is also the only way that you can ask others to change with any integrity: Why should they change for you if you aren't willing to change for them?

2. Ask questions and take non-defensive feedback

Once you're in a mindset of improving what you can yourself, you can shift the way that you approach that "problematic" other person.

Instead of coming in and asking them to change for you, come in with curiosity: What is this process like for them? How do they experience you? (Assume that they find the interaction frustrating, too, and aim to figure out what annoying thing you are unknowingly doing.)

Instead of this...

... try this.

​I asked you for these budget numbers two weeks ago. How can it take so long to pull a simple report?

I'm working on turning our finances around faster. Can you tell me what you do when we send you a budget request? Is there anything we can do that would make it easier for you?

Why can't you fill out this simple form correctly? Do I need to train you on it again?

I've noticed lots of folks are having trouble with this form. Can I watch you complete a couple, and can you tell me about any parts that are unclear or confusing?

3. Focus together on a common problem

Too often, we approach process problems as a win-lose proposition: "Fix your department's stupid problem, or we have to keep suffering." This makes the whole situation adversarial, me fighting against you.

Nothing brings people together like a common enemy. How might you and that other person focus together on fighting the problem?

Instead of this...

... try this.

It takes the hiring manager two months to interview a candidate, and then they complain to me in HR!

Hey hiring manager, what could we do differently in our interview process so that we get you the candidates you want to interview sooner?

Expense reports are always filled out incorrectly, but it takes the finance team forever to review the document. If they reviewed it faster, I could correct the form sooner.

How could the form be redesigned so that there are fewer mistakes when submitted?

Back to our Rec Park facilities problem: The most important thing we did in the whole project was just to get capital and maintenance staff to sit around a table together and focus them on the problem: How can we make sure that we build high quality, durable park facilities for San Franciscans? That simple shift in focus was what the team needed to double the quality of their blueprint reviews.

4. Use behavioral insights

What if I told you that even things that are seemingly way outside of your control -- like whether a citizen pays a bill on time, attends a job fair, or signs up for an energy savings program -- are in fact things you can influence?

At PPI, we like to talk about making it "easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing." There's an entire field of behavioral economics that promotes simple solutions to influence behavior -- "nudges" like increasing your retirement contributions by default, reducing the number of fields on a form, or making customer choices clear and concise. It's the focus of our Behavioral Insights workshop here at PPI.

I often tell clients, "If one person fills out your form wrong, you can blame that person. If 1,000 people fill out your form wrong, you should blame your form."

Whenever people in our process make a mistake or don't behave in the way we expect, we should ask ourselves, "Could we have prevented this mistake if our process was different? What could we have done differently to get them to [respond more quickly / read the instructions / complete the form correctly]?"

Take it from Michael Jackson:

Start with the man in the mirror

Removing the person from the problem is the first step, and plays a big impact on how constructive and collaborative you can be towards the problem. By focusing on what you can change, creates momentum for others to join in! So the next time you find yourself starting to blame the person, take a step back and ask yourself what is the problem, and how can we come together to solve the issue?

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