In the Lean methodology, building upon the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, we work hard to shift away from “naming, blaming, and shaming.” Dr. John Toussaint is one of many who provide alternatives to the “blame and shame” approach that’s, sadly, so common in healthcare.
When I teach about focusing more on fixing systems and processes (instead of blaming individuals), I talk about workplace scenarios where things go wrong. As Deming taught (and I believe strongly, from my own experience), roughly 94% of problems are caused by the system.
I often say that it’s human nature to try to blame others. It’s easier to lecture and say “don’t blame” than it is to practice this in our daily lives. I’m not perfect, but I try.
I sometimes say that “You might not stop blaming people, but you can be better at being aware of when you’re blaming… and you can shift your thinking to the system — hopefully before you say something out loud.”
Yesterday, while traveling, I was looking to get a light dinner at the airport. There was a wine bar at the airport that I know has good light snacks that pair nicely with a glass of line. That’s all I needed, instead of a full meal.
Being alone, I grabbed a wooden stool, with a back, and tried sitting on it at the bar – a stool like this one.
The base of the stool had some loose or weak joints and, as I sat on it, it felt like it was about to collapse backward and out from under me. So, I grabbed the stool next to me instead and I thought I had some obligation (for the safety of other customers) to say something to the bartender about it.
I politely said, “Excuse me, this stool is about to come apart… I was afraid it was going to fall out from under me.”
The bartender wasn’t really busy — there weren’t any other customers at the bar and he was drying or polishing a glass.
He replied, without even really looking at me, “Yeah, we’re due for an update… they’re all sort of like that. Sorry.”
I said, “Well, it seems like somebody could get hurt…”
The bartender interrupted and said curtly, “WE KNOW,” and continued polishing his glass. I took that to mean, “So, shut up about it and order something.”
So I thought, “Jerk,” and I got up and left, muttering to myself about what how rude the bartender was and I’d give my business to somebody else.
And then I realized… wait, maybe I’m just blaming the individual here.
As Dr. Deming said (or is quoted as saying):
1) “If you really have to blame someone, blame the people responsible for the system.”
I tried to put myself in the shoes of the bartender. It’s quite possible that somebody tells him about the lousy stools multiple times a day. Maybe he has been told by management (locally or by the corporate parent of the chain) that he can’t do anything about the chairs, since removing the worst ones (without a replacement) might reduce the capacity and revenue of the bar.
Maybe the bartender has asked and begged and pleaded for better stools (taking pride in his work and worrying about his own tips), but he hasn’t gotten a response or any help.
How would I feel in that situation? I’d probably be frustrated and maybe a bit bitter. I might snap at a customer if I’m constantly being told about a problem he couldn’t fix.
The jerk in this situation might have been me (there might have been some confirmation bias on my part, since people in this unnamed state sometimes have a reputation for being rude or combative). Or, it’s the bartender who is indeed a jerk (a 6% chance, per Deming?). Or, neither of us.
Can you think of situations where you blamed an individual when it was really a system problem? Have you tried to be more mindful about this? How has this played out in your personal life or in the workplace?
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