Does Your Business Have a People or Process Problem?

by | Business Advice, Process Management, Staff Management

Running a successful business requires many moving parts that must work together. Sometimes there are bottlenecks or roadblocks, and things aren’t getting done. This is often the point where you start to wonder if your business has a people or process problem.

When trying to determine if there’s a people or process problem, it’s essential to avoid the two natural tendencies we all have.

Business partners having conflict accuse each other at group meeting in boardroom

Fundamental Attribution Error

In social psychology, fundamental attribution error occurs when you overemphasize a person’s personality as the contributing factor in a situation while underemphasizing the situational factors.

For example, if one of your team members isn’t getting work done, you start to think that the problem is that they’re disorganized and lack a sense of urgency. Those are personality traits. While the real problem may be that they’re not getting the information and tools, they need to do their job and hit deadlines. That’s a situational problem.

While it’s tempting to see someone’s actions as solely a reflection of who they are as a person, it’s a mistake not to consider situational factors when determining if you have a people or process problem.

Young creative business people working out people or process problem on whiteboard

Process Improvement Panacea

There’s absolutely no doubt that process improvement can streamline your business, reduce stress, and improve your bottom line. And process improvement consultants can be invaluable in helping you achieve maximum efficiency.

But process improvement is not a solution for every problem. Sometimes a consultant or business coach will be brought in to diagnose a problem and will quickly tumble to the conclusion that you have a process problem.

Why? Because fixing a process problem is typically much easier than fixing a people problem. People problems can be messy, involve uncomfortable conversations, and create stress for everyone involved.

Claiming there’s a process problem is much easier because everyone involved can tell themselves that they’re not the problem – how work gets done is the problem. And so, everyone gets together to form a committee, the process is outlined and documented, and everyone is trained on the new process. Still, nothing changes because you’ve got a people problem not a process problem. So how can you tell whether you have a people or process problem?

Business people pointing at whiteboard

6 Signs You Have a Process Problem

  1. Poor work quality: when an entire department or business unit has poor work quality across the board, that’s a sure sign that you’ve got a process problem somewhere along the line. In this case, you’ll want to analyze the current workflow for bottlenecks, stoppage points, and quality control and create a new and improved process to get the work done.
  2. Missed deadlines: When project or production deadlines are consistently missed across a work team or department, that’s a clue that you’ve got a process problem. People may not be getting the information or tools they need to complete the work on time, or your project/production timelines may be unrealistic, to begin with. Reviewing the process flow specifically with an eye on timeline expectations and information sharing can help eliminate this problem.
  3. Extra hours: When a group of team members put in extra hours on a consistent, ongoing basis (not for a specific, limited period), process problems are often to blame. Typically, there are inefficiencies somewhere in the process that can be ironed out to make the process more effective and reduce overtime hours. Paying attention to the number of hours your team works can help identify if you have a people or process problem.
  4. Unproductive meetings: While it’s tempting to blame long, boring meetings where nothing gets resolved on the person running the meeting, it can often be a process problem. By setting specific guidelines for how meetings are run in your organization, you can minimize – or even eliminate – unproductive meetings because everyone has a shared understanding and expectation of the process to run a successful meeting. This is a quick fix that can pay off big time.
  5. Passing the buck: If you often find that when there’s a problem, it’s difficult to identify who’s responsible for the situation, you probably have a process problem. Workflow that is not well defined and the lack of an accountability chart that identifies who makes decisions can often result in a situation where everyone passes the buck to someone else. There is confusion about what’s getting done, what’s not getting done, and who’s responsibility it is to make sure things get done. You can quickly eliminate passing the buck from your workflow by creating an accountability chart (like an org chart but with decision-making responsibilities identified). People tend to approach passing the buck as a people problem, but it can often be fixed with an accountability chart.
  6. Turnover: If you have a higher than average turnover in a particular position or department, you may have a process problem that is causing people to get frustrated and request a transfer to a different job, a different department, or leave the company. Team members might say that the reason for the transfer is that the workflow is confusing, deadlines are unrealistic, or the job is too much for just one person. Investigating processes to determine if you have a people or process problem could be the key to reducing turnover.
Business colleagues having a disagreement

6 Signs You Have a People Problem

  1. Poor work quality: In this instance, one specific team member (as opposed to a workgroup) exhibits poor quality in their work. Their work is sub-standard compared to others in the workgroup, and the reduced quality of work has occurred over time (not episodic.) When this happens, it’s helpful to analyze the person’s ability to do the job (were they a bad fit?), their motivation to achieve the work standard, and their willingness to improve. (If it’s an episodic decline in work quality, it could point to a problem outside of work.)
  2. Missed deadlines:  If just one person in a workgroup consistently misses deadlines, you probably have a people – not process – problem. Missed deadlines can be caused when a team member feels overwhelmed by one or more aspects of the job, they’re bored with the work and lack motivation, or they don’t really have the skills necessary to complete the work. Try to resist fundamental attribution error and label them “lazy” or “stupid.” Noticing the specific symptoms of a situation can help you decide if you have a people or process problem.
  3. Team member, but not management turnover: Consistent turnover that occurs within a workgroup but does not occur with that work group’s management team is a clue that you have a people problem. But the problem doesn’t lie with members of the team; it’s probably someone in the management team. The supervisor may have unrealistic work expectations, the manager may be verbally abusive, or the team leader may be holding people back so they can’t get promoted and leave the team.
  4. Individual Contributor vs. Team Players: When a team member doesn’t proactively share information to help each other move the work along or you’re constantly getting complaints that they’re hard to work with, you could have someone with an individual contributor mentality. Individual contributors are typically highly skilled in one or two areas and prefer to work on their own projects in their own way. They are often great at what they do but prefer to work as their own one-person team. Individual contributors are not a good fit for fast-paced work teams where collaboration and information sharing are essential. Don’t be afraid to consider if individual members are a good fit for the team when considering people or process problems.
  5. Turnover: Whileconsistent turnover with team members leaving a workgroup or leaving the company can indicate a process problem (see #6 above), it can also reflect a people problem. How can you tell the difference? If it’s a people problem, team members will give vague reasons for leaving like, “I was just ready for a change,” or “I’m looking for better opportunities.” They’re reluctant to say out loud that their manager is overbearing, the team lead is a jerk, or they just can’t get along with a team member. If the stated reason for leaving is not specific and does not seem directly related to the duties and responsibilities of the position, you may have a people, not a process problem.
Business man in a meeting

How to Fix the Problem

Identifying whether you have a people or process problem can take a little experience. And fixing the problem depends on which kind of problem you have.

To fix a process problem, you need the ability to ask probing questions, critical thinking skills, and the change management skills to walk your team through the necessary steps of implementing a new process.

To fix a people problem, you need emotional courage and the ability to communicate with the team member in a calm, non-judgmental, one-step-at-a-time way.

It’s well worth your time to stop and determine if you have a people or process problem and then move forward with the appropriate action steps. It’s not always easy, but it will pay off in both the short and long term and your business will be better able to scale and achieve your business goals.

If you need help deciding if you have a people or process problem, schedule a conversation today.