Understanding How Humans and Systems Interact

Managing effectively brings out better performance in your team. Better performance means harmonizing people and systems.

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Understanding How Humans and Systems Interact douglas magazine Vancouver Island News
VMAC, an air-compressor manufacturer based in Nanaimo, was named one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for 2019.

Jazz giant John Coltrane’s composition Giant Steps is one audiences love and jazz musicians fear. In fact, Vox Media calls it “the most feared song in jazz.” Whether that’s true or not, Coltrane’s performance of the piece combines crazy theoretical complexity and captivatingly beautiful music that represents the union of human performance and a formal system (musical composition and jazz improvisation).

This kind of union is something we would like to see more of in business — an ideal state of harmony between humans and the systems they work within.

The problem? In business, people and processes are too often treated as separate things, with separate disciplines wrapped around them. On the people side, we have disciplines like psychology and behavioural economics and human capital. On the process side, we have project management, engineering and industrial design. What’s missing is a discipline that looks at that space where the two areas interact — the intersection between people and process.

It’s not that no one has looked at this.  Groundbreaking work has been done with Nobel-prize recipient Daniel Kahneman’s work on behavioural economics; science author Daniel Pink’s work on human motivation; and philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s criticism of Descartes’ idea that the mind and the brain are two different things (what he called the “ghost in the machine”).

Perhaps the closest anyone has come yet to finding a way to harmonize people with processes is the Toyota’s Kata system. Writer and researcher Mike Rother detailed this approach in his 2009 book Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. 

Understanding How Humans and Systems Interact

The trouble is, concepts like the Toyota production system, and the subsequent Lean management approach that grew out of it, are used only sparingly, in enlightened microcosms of the business world.

The rest of that world relies on half-baked, untested pop-psychology and expert-worship that passes for “thinking” in business management. It’s not enough.

If we’re going to achieve the true performance potential of organizations, we need to deeply understand how humans and systems interact.

We need a single uniting discipline.

Without that discipline, it’s like trying to explain a Coltrane performance by only talking about jazz theory, or only by breathing and moving your mouth, tongue and fingers. It’s like trying to groom a sports team for success by focusing only on the rules of the game or only on physical fitness.

Businesses need to take a cue from artists and athletes who know humans interact with systems of rules, constraints, movement, rhythm, harmony and language to create results. They know talent without systems, or systems without talent, is simply unthinkable.

So why hasn’t the business world figured this out? Why are we still drawing a line between managing people and managing processes? We call the former a “soft skill”, while suggesting things like finance or operations are “hard skills.” That language mirrors a limiting people/process divide. In my opinion, the phrase “soft skills” should vanish from our vocabularies.

Creating Unity

To improve the performance of our organizations, here are some effective places to begin understanding and integrating our people and systems.

> Align culture, people and processes. Getting the culture right is foundational. We need a culture that supports continual improvement by challenging the status quo every day. Our people must feel safe to do this. The culture must support “always on” communication. The image of the hive is a powerful one. The best place to start building a culture like this is by reading Dan Coyle’s book The Culture Code.

> Standardize processes. For a system to be truly responsive (able to adapt at “the speed of change”) it must first be standardized. Processes that aren’t standardized can’t be trained, measured or understood in the way required to change them rapidly and successfully. If the rules of jazz were whatever anyone wanted them to be, there would be no Coltrane, no Davis, no Krall. True creativity requires standardized systems to function.

> Implement transformative training. The best way to maximize the effectiveness of people’s interactions with processes and systems is through an unflinching commitment to the best possible training. Starbucks, McDonald’s, Disney, Toyota, Nordstrom — all have world-class training programs, but go much further; training is central to their business models.

> Engage in rapid feedback communication. To manage the flow of information in a business, we need digital tools and an ever-present feedback loop to verify our assumptions and understanding of our people, customers and results.

If we’re going to move organizational performance into the 21st century, we must take giant steps and find a new language that unifies and transcends the binary division of people (the ghost) and systems (the machine) in organizations.

In high-performing organizations, the people and the systems are not two separate things that can be dissected and then put back together like Frankenstein’s monster. Instead, they are one thing, which I call “organizational performance.”

Clemens Rettich is a business consultant with Grant Thornton LLP. He has an MBA from Royal Roads University and has spent 25 years practicing the art of management.

This article is from the December/January 2020 issue of Douglas.