A good person and a bad system - my take

Posted by Marcus Hammarberg on November 20, 2014
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W. Edwards Deming is one the big quote-machines in the management business and one of the most often cited is this:
A bad system will defeat a good person, every time - W. Edwards Deming 
It's not only sad - it's also true. Sadly. (Oh wow - that was an recursive sentence almost :)). I believe this and I have seen it in practice. But i have also seen the opposite. Like this:
A good person will defeat a bad system, eventually - Marcus C. Hammarberg
Let me try to clarify what I mean and what I've seen to support it.

W. Edwards Deming is one the big quote-machines in the management business and one of the most often cited is this:
A bad system will defeat a good person, every time - W. Edwards Deming 
It's not only sad - it's also true. Sadly. (Oh wow - that was an recursive sentence almost :)). I believe this and I have seen it in practice. But i have also seen the opposite. Like this:
A good person will defeat a bad system, eventually - Marcus C. Hammarberg
Let me try to clarify what I mean and what I've seen to support it.

Story 1

I consulted at a big Swedish insurance company for a couple of years. I was part of a team rebuilding one of their key applications (in VB.NET). Great guys and a team that I often think back of. One of the guys in the team was the maintenance person for this application. His group consisted of 4 people that supported ca 40 applications. 

I often visited him after the application was rewritten - a funny guy! His team sat in a corner of the floor. Behind them they had a wall of unstructured post-it notes. I asked what it was:
"This? That's just the backdoors, unlocked servers and shares that we found to the production servers. We put it here to make our lives easier. If we find one we just keep quite about it and note it here, until they find it" 
Basically the bad system was hindering these good people from doing their job properly. The system was there for a good reason; security. The production environment was LOCKED down. And that's how it supposed to be. Basta! To do their job they worked around the system.  In fact - they told me that they estimated that more than half of their time was spent finding ways to actually get their work done.

Good persons defeated the bad system.

Story 2

I have only worked for governments once in my life, the Stockholm City Concuil. All configuring of any computer was done by a third-party company. And they were swamped with work. 

We needed to open a port to get access to development database (my god... that was a long time ago... I hope those times never return). So we created an issue at the third party issue system. And waited. The day after - nothing.

Me: "have you reminded them?"
Team mate: "Yes - I sent an email even."
Me: "How about calling them?"
Team mate: "No - we cannot do that."
Me: "Why?"
Team mate: "That's how the system works. We register our issues and wait."

We called them. And a very nice person helped us within 2 minutes. Not only that - we kept contact during the reminder of the project and called him for help. After he fixed it we created an issue for his record. 

We worked around the bad system to get some (good) work done.  
Good persons (and me) defeated the bad system.

Story 3

A friend started a new job. After a couple of weeks I called her. 
Me: "What are you doing, E?"
E: "I'm writing a suggestion for a solution to give to the business so that they can say that this is not what they want?"
Me: "You are what?!"
E: "Yeah, they don't really know what they want. But the phase we are in now requires a solution document. They cannot write it - so I help them."
Me: "Eeeeeh? Good for them. "

E and her good friends defeated the bad system by working around it. Arguably she could have just bought them a coffee and talked it over, but she was kind and followed the procedure. 

Your options

I'm sure you can come up with many stories like this yourself. Where you have worked around the systems. I have friends that have described their entire job like "Working around the system". 

Sure all these stories are just examples and arguably they don't produce long-lasting effects, systemic change etc. But what should these poor people do? They are stuck. They have to do they work or we punish them. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Putting it mildly. 

So what can we do? We need rules, right? Some kind of structure at least. 

Yes - but if we are in a position to make rules and regulations you (and I) have to consider what you want people to spend their time doing; working or working around the system. Surely - I have had assignment where more time have been spent working around the system than actually working (see Story 1 above for one example). 

I really don't have answers for that non-question. So I leave you with two quotes (one of those posts I guess) that I love:
"You cannot teach jujitsu - you can only create an environment in which someone can learn jujitsu. The rest is up to them" - Johnno, Dan Norths jujitsu teacher 15 years ago 
If you got the opportunity to influence your environment (hint: YOU CAN) - in which would you move it? 


Published by Marcus Hammarberg on Last updated