System vs. Individual – One More Time

The shocked looks on people’s faces when I talk about the 95/5 Rule or the resistance to my writing on such a thing is noteworthy.  Usually, it is HR folks and executives that provide the banter.  This isn’t surprising since many of these same people have been doing it wrong for a long time or maybe even promoted based on “individual performance.”

The reality is that the system dictates performance.  Individuals put in bad systems will lose every time.

So, what is a system?

It’s structure, work design, culture, technology, management thinking, measures, compensation systems, training, etc.  that govern performance.  And all systems are different, that is why they can’t be copied into best practices and the one best way mentality.

This does not mean that the individual is unimportant.  In fact, the individual is crucial to performing good service.  Systems need to be set up to enable the individual not disable them.  Unfortunately, work design and management thinking don’t usually allow this to happen.

Most organizations believe that performance comes down to the individual and so they (erroneously) see their systems up around individual performance.  These assumptions around the individual prevent breakthrough performance and create huge and costly waste.  This comes in the form of costly appraisals and assessments of individual performance.

The damage of an emphasis on individual performance doesn’t end with just appraisal systems . . . careers are damaged every day by this thinking.  I see individual performance in management and worker being labeled and then released for their performance.  Can we first fix the systems workers work in before ruining them?

Whenever I work with organizations and the systems are squarely what is being worked on, you can almost hear and feel the collective sigh of relief. They happily go on with the task of fixing the system and improving performance because everyone wants to work in a better system.  The whole tone and culture changes to something positive.

I rarely find bad individuals, but I find bad systems in almost every service organization.  It is evident in the service their customers experience.  Management doesn’t see the damage of bad systems because they don’t know how to look.  They can’t understand unless they go to the work and get knowledge about how bad these systems are in delivering service.

The 95/5 rule isn’t so much a rule as a way of thinking.  Whether you believe the real number is 70/30 or 80/20 or even 60/40 the system still dictates the performance.  All you have to do is look.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Read his articles at Quality Digest and his column for  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at LinkedIn at

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