Want to Achieve Real Improvement? Stop Blaming the People!

Fixing broken processes is the better choice for increased productivity and a more engaged workforce.

“A bad system will beat a good person every time.” Dr. W. Edwards Deming

One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming is, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” This is one of the many lessons to be learned from Dr. Deming’s Red Bead Experiment. I had the opportunity to see Dr. Deming do his experiment twice. The second time I tried to capture every word he said because I knew that someday I would incorporate this activity into my own training classes.

Here’s a quick recap of the Red Bead Experiment: Dr. Deming would first ask for volunteers to fill six “willing worker” positions. He then told these workers to dip a paddle with 50 indentations into a bowl of beads that were about 20% red and 80% white. The red beads represented defects and, as the boss, he made it clear that red beads were unacceptable. Of course, statistically speaking, it was nearly impossible to pull out the 50 random beads without a few of them being red. Each time this happened, Dr. Deming would say something like, “I am very disappointed with your work. You do want a job, don’t you? Maybe you should try a little harder next time!”

This experiment is a great way to demonstrate how crazy it is to blame the worker for something they have no control over. It is a broken process. However, pointing a finger at the employee instead of taking the time to address the problem and fix the process is much easier. Unfortunately, that is what happens all too often. This can lead to resentment, a loss of trust and a sense of hopelessness. Over time, being blamed for things outside of their control can build bitterness within the workforce, making it difficult to engage employees in the improvement efforts. The following example highlights the importance of blaming the process and not the person, and it is based on an event that occurred early in my career.

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