Sometimes It’s Not a Systems Problem – Identifying the Real Issue

In one of my first vocational leadership roles, I managed a large retail division of a major department store. The division had several departments within it and each department had a separate department manager. Most of the departments were efficient, profitable, and easy to manage. One department, however, continued to fall behind the others. It was frustrating, because I couldn’t seem to get them to improve.

I was young and inexperienced, so I innocently thought the problem was me. If I could implement the right strategy in working with this department – find the right system – I could improve performance. I tested numerous systems to try to increase their productivity, but nothing seemed to work.

I was wrong in my assessment and the experience taught me a valuable lesson.

You can have the best systems – the best strategies – the best programs – and still struggle with the performance of a team.

Sometimes it’s not a systems problem.

Sometimes it’s strictly a people problem.

I realized the problem was the leader in this department. This person always said what I wanted to hear. She was nice to me personally. She talked a good game, but she was grossly under-performing and bringing her department down with her. Through due process, and after months of trying to coach and encourage this leader to improve, I eventually had to replace her leadership and the department dramatically improved and almost instantly.

Since then I’ve always tried to remember to never try to handle a people problem with a systems approach.

Handle people problems with people.

This doesn’t mean you’ll always need to replace the people, but you seldom improve people problems with better systems. You improve people problems by improving people.

Many times, in my experience, we try to create systems when the problem isn’t a systems problem, it’s a people problem. The best systems won’t solve a people problem.

Knowing the difference between a systems problem and a people problem, and being mature enough to handle it, will make you a better leader.

Side note for the church – Churches are notorious for this by the way. Churches often try to solve problems in people’s lives, for example, by creating rules, systems, programs, etc, designed to help make them better people. The problem is it’s not a systems problem. It’s not a program or committee problem. It’s a people problem. If their heart doesn’t change, the problems in their life will continue.

Have you seen organizations and leaders create systems, instead of handling the real problem? 

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • I have been on both sides of this problem. As a pastor, I was always in favor of ways to handle issues as efficiently as possible (which often kept them off my plate). This, unfortunately, included handling problems faced by members of the church.

    Later, after experiencing the failure of a church plant, getting beat up in the process and stepping out of ministry, I found myself in a church that handled my requests for marital counseling with the same "system" approach. Very frustrating and sterile. I can't imagine what the people in the margins of society must go through when they turn to the government (or the church) for help.

    Great article Ron!

  • Richard Ray says:

    Sometimes the only way to change people is to change people.

  • "Organizations and leaders create systems, instead of handling the real problem." ~ Ron! I believe this happens due to lack of assertiveness to address the problem. Many times, we behave as if no problem exists. We fail to acknowledge the truth in our life. That is why we provide a wrong solution to a problem.

    To deal with the people problem, we can start with addressing the root cause to the issue. Also, it is important to understand that people are as entitled to their opinions as we are. And, remember that it’s all relative and a matter of perspective.

  • Eric says:

    I've experienced this on an occasion or two. I once had to let someone go because he was the problem. In the end because it proved to help the entire team. I tolerated too much from him. I learned that as a leader you teach what you tolerate.
    Twitter: ericspeir

  • Libby Butero says:

    Wisdom takes on many forms but I'm afraid some are not open to wisdom if it isn't quoted out of the King James. However, I think the Apostle Paul would love some of the blogs I've been able to find and glean wisdom that I was starving for… Thanks for blogging. Michael Hyatt was talking about leaders being able to find good in a situation that is not good and is not going to change. The KJ that came to my mind was that God is able to make all things work to the good for those called according to his purpose. However, so often this promise i sperceived as a passive paradigm and yet we are to know that it is through our trials and suffering that we learn wisdom. So while God is working the good, we are to be seeking to grow in the circumstance and undoubtedly, we will be a part of the good that comes from something not good that will not change. We change. It's the glory of God being produced in the earth!

  • Rob Still says:

    Yes, I've seen organizations and leaders create systems, instead of handling the real problem …

    Why? To break down and discern "what the real problem is" requires insight and wisdom. This is in short supply in many organizational contexts. imo. Personally, I believe in "coaching up" my people problems until that approach is exhausted.

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