Dr. Edwards Deming used to do a demonstration called “The Red Bead Experiment”. He would call up 6 willing workers and have them try to sort through a bin filled with white beads using a paddle. In the bin were a mixture of red beads or “defects”. The point was to show that no matter how hard the workers tried and no matter what things management put in place (quality control people, training from HR, etc…) the statistical probability of having some red beads on your paddle never changed.
Deming was trying to make the point that no matter how good your employees are, if you have a broken system, you will never get the results you desire.
This reminds me of the story of NUMMI. You can find the full story here. In 1982, GM closed its Fremont plant. This plant was plagued with labor issues and workforce problems. Drugs, sex, gambling and alcohol were all present inside the plant. Quality issues were rampant. GM decided it had enough. The following year, Toyota and GM started up a new joint venture. GM wanted to learn how to build smaller gas efficient cars and the smaller Japanese company called Toyota was looking to see how their “Toyota Production System” would work in America. At the time, GM was 7 times the size of Toyota.
The interesting part of the story is that Toyota agreed to hire back the exact same workers. They believed that the system is the key, not the people. Even great employees in a bad system will fail. So, when NUMMI opened, 85% of the workforce was the same as when GM closed the plant. Toyota began flying workers back in groups of 30 to learn the Toyota Production System. They trained along side their Japanese counterparts on the lines in Japan. They saw a completely different way of building cars where people were respected and empowered.
So, what was the outcome? Initial quality numbers off the line at NUMMI were the best in America. They were equal to those in Japan right from the start.
So, same plant, same workers and a completely different outcome.
You can see this play out in all sorts of arenas. When Singeltary coached the 49ers, he was quoted as saying he couldn’t win with those players. Vernon Davis, Alex Smith and the rest of the team. When he was fired, they hired coach Harbaugh. Harbaugh came to the team during the players strike and didn’t have the luxury of making too many personnel changes or even very many practices before the season started. Yet, in the new “system” that he brought to the team, they were one game away from the Super Bowl that same season.
In another example, imagine your company had to hire kids right out of high school with no college degree. It had no way to pay great wages and every 4 years or so all the people you hired and trained would leave and new people had to be brought in. How well would your company operate? Yet the US Military is one of the finest organizations in the world despite this “handicap”.
Not big on military examples? What if you had a football team that could only draft rookies. Also, every 4 years, you have to trade all of your best and most experienced players. How well do you think you could do? Well, between 1992 and 2004, the De La Salle High School football team won 151 straight games. 12 years of excellence with different players joining and leaving the team every single year.
The point is, a great system with average people will beat the best people in an average system every time. Our companies are the same way. How many managers wonder why their people aren’t getting the required results and yet the system the company and the managers have established is severely flawed? Broken processes, silos between departments, lack of clarity and leadership, etc…
If you want to get amazing results, build a system that can deliver them.