Managing Employee Performance Why Good Systems Override Pop Psychology


When employee performance falters, first look at your systems. “Fix the systems, before the people” is a good rule to follow. There are more theories about people management than there are about successful marriage. I don’t pretend to be an expert in either subject. But in over 35 years in human resources and performance management, this is what I’ve learned.

If the Systems Are Poor The People Will Fail

That’s what I’ve learned. It’s expressed in other ways too. “Poor systems, poorer people”. “There are few poor people but lots of lousy systems”.

If your people are performing poorly, you have a systems problem somewhere. If you train, counsel or even replace your people without fixing that problem, your people will continue to perform poorly. You man even unwittingly punish and demotivate you most valuable employees.

You may be a manager who likes to discuss things with employees. You may prefer counselling or even issuing formal warnings when employees err. Some industrial relations laws require that approach. These approaches can be useful. But I repeat what I’ve learned. When employee performance falters, look at your systems before your people.

What’s A System?

A system is simple. It’s “the way we do things around here”. It may be extraordinarily complex and sophisticated. They may be completely ad hoc with nothing in writing. It’s probably something in between. Whatever it is, it’s your system. And good administration procedures need good systems.

Systems Overlap

All your business systems overlap. A deficiency in your selection system affects your training which affects day to day operations. A blockage in order processing affects dispatch, the warehouse, delivery and customer service.

Your system is simply how you do things. Your systems may be brilliant or banal. If they don’t support your people to do their jobs and achieve results competently, at least part of it has failed.

Systems Problems Can Be Anywhere

Just because the staff in the warehouse are underperforming, doesn’t mean that your warehouse system is faulty. The system problem could be

  • recruiting the wrong people
  • liaison between warehousing and purchasing
  • administrative procedures that inhibit performance
  • poor storage facilities
  • poor training
  • slack delivery schedules.

In other words, it could be anywhere. But I’ll guarantee there is a system problem. In this case, it could be something as simple as poor form design. I’m not suggesting that your staff are faultless. The best staff make mistakes. But constant poor performance signifies poor systems.

Seek Simple Solutions

You’ll often find that the solution to such problems is relatively simple. If could be form redesign, paper flow adjustment or work sequence change.

I once saw a serious bottleneck fixed by changing the place orders were placed on a desk. The solution was absolutely simple. No one had realized the exact nature of the problem

Staff themselves often know the answer. Ask them.


You may well have some lazy, incompetent and difficult people in your workplace. But the reason for their behaviour may lie with the systems you require them to operate.

Rushing in with “counselling”, “analysis” and “motivation” or even threats shouldn’t be your first response. Demanding greater attention to administrative  procedures won’t work either.

Replacing and retraining people is very costly. Try improving the systems before replacing or retraining the people. That’s the cornerstone of managing employee performance.

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