W. Edwards Deming, the acknowledged father of quality process improvement, spent most of his career shedding light on this truism: At least 90% of constraints on performance are in the processes, not the people.

Think about that. Could it be that stale and difficult organizational processes — not people — that are to blame for 90% of the obstacles stopping organizational transformation?

Perhaps it’s time to stop measuring people only, and instead let people collaboratively measure process performance.

Getting to the Heart of It

Many organizations become distracted by programs aimed at making it easier, more engaging and more inclusive to measure people. These new flavors of traditional systems still fail to recognize that the things holding back performance of people are instead rooted in design of business processes.

Deming had much to say about this, of course. He didn’t pull any punches when he noted that when 90% of constraints on performance can be traced to poor processes, then leadership must be accountable because it owns the processes.

New Accountability Paradigm

It is natural to feel threatened by the prospect of being held accountable. Though most of us welcome the accountability that comes from constructive criticism, we fear the possibility of unfair criticism. When feedback is unexpectedly harsh or not based on facts as we understand them, our minds shift toward defensiveness and away from ways to improve.

A new paradigm is needed — one based on learning, not judging.

Annual or quarterly performance review systems traditionally assume people have full control over results. This is a false assumption. Results actually are the products of business processes and systems. While people can influence and affect outcomes, they must work within the constraints of the processes they are given.

It is time to take the next step by measuring organization and process performance alongside individual performance. This allows us to redefine accountability for performance in a more constructive way. A system that drives behavior and intended outcomes should focus on these factors:

  • Lock on to results that matter by monitoring performance within the context of business results and removing measures that give people reasons to simply tick the box for daily tasks.
  • Validly interpret measures that provide visibility into how individual performance ties into some aspect of business results. This motivates people to seek the right feedback on how results are actually doing, rather than fudging the figures to get to a number.
  • Empower people by holding them accountable for taking action when it is required. Those who are closest to the field often have the best view of what needs to be changed. If they are responsible for interpreting the measure, then they can be accountable for deciding what kind of action is needed for improvement. It’s a step toward working on the processes instead of gaming the system.

Get to the Right Outcomes

Sometimes positive change is rooted in freedom to ask the right questions. What can we fundamentally change in the process to get the outcome we want? How can we empower people to work on processes that result in real and positive change, and not find themselves constrained within the process?

Let’s start process reengineering with the performance review system.

Under the old paradigm, people might say: “If you want to change me, involve me.”

Now, we need to turn the dial further by cultivating an attitude that says: “I want to change it because I am involved and can clearly see what is causing the need for change. I can initiate action when change is required — and these actions will be celebrated by my team and company.” 


People change management can help organizations adopt to a new normal, even in unprecedented times like these.

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This post is part of a series explaining the value of change metrics to utility leaders, change practitioners, transformation executives and process professionals. Learn more: