Process Problems and People Problems

In a stack of wooden blocks with green happy faces, one unhappy red face stands out.

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” —Hanlon’s razor

The following is an excerpt from “Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief,” my bestselling book on the phases of entrepreneurship. The second edition will be out later this month!

“My staff never cleans up before they go home.”

“Our front office is a pigsty!”

“No one returns phone calls or emails quickly.”

“No one cares except for me!”

If you struggle to get consistent action from your staff, there are two possible causes.

The first probable cause is your process. The second probable cause is your people.

Process Questions

Question 1

If anyone on my staff is failing to perform at the highest level, I first assume it’s my fault: The process isn’t clear enough to them. I ask myself:

“Have I told them exactly what to do and how to do it?”

As founders, we frequently assume that everyone knows what we do or that our knowledge is “common sense.” But of course that’s not the case: No one knows how to write a compelling quote for a client until we tell them. Often, our instructions are too complex or contain gaps that our own brains skip right over.

I once had a cleaner named Sean. His checklist said “mop the floors.” So he did—but he didn’t use any soap because I didn’t write “pour a cup of soap into the hot water.” The dirty floors were my fault: Sean was just following my poor directions.

Question 2

If I’ve told the staff person clearly how to do a job and they’re not meeting expectations, the next question I ask myself is:

“Have I shown them what ‘perfect’ means?”

My definition of “clean” is different from your definition. To my kids, “clean” means “tidy.” To my wife, “clean” means the involvement of bleach and rubber gloves.

To me, “on time” means 15 minutes early—at minimum. But to a teenager, “on time” might mean two minutes after 9. If my front-desk staff arrives at two minutes after 9 on the weekend and I’ve only told them to be “on time,” I’m allowing a subjective consideration into my process.

Clearly spell out the gold standard in all work. If possible, take a picture: “Here’s what a clean office looks like.” No one can live up to an imaginary standard.

Question 3

If they know the gold standard and they’re failing to meet it, I ask myself the third question:

“Have I reviewed their performance with them?”

This is usually my weakest link. But if I haven’t told the staffer that their work is subpar, they probably think it’s just fine. Over 80 percent of drivers claim to be better than average because our egos won’t ever let us believe we’re bad at anything. Your staff is the same way: If you don’t rate their performance, they will assume that it’s good enough.

Schedule quarterly reviews for all staff. Do it in advance. And give them the scorecard (your evaluation form) on the day of their hire.

Question 4

Finally, if I’m sticking to an evaluation schedule and they’re still failing, I ask myself a fourth question:

“Do they have an emotional reason to succeed?”

You can tell a staff person to take out the garbage because it’s their job. You can impose your authority and threaten punishment. But we’re all human and driven by irrational desires. At 9 p.m., when your cleaner is tired and wants to make it home in time to watch “Shark Tank,” they might skip the garbage takeout. It might not even be a conscious decision.

But if they know that the president is visiting tomorrow, they won’t forget. Our job is to make them see the consequence of their failure through the eyes of others: If they don’t empty the garbage tonight, sweet Mary will have to do it in the morning. She’ll be finishing their job for them. Just as your mom used to guilt you into doing work by doing it for you while you watched, we need to give our staff an emotional reason to succeed.

Ask them, “How will this affect the other staff if your work isn’t done?” or “What impression will our clients have if the floor isn’t clean?” or “What will the buyer think if you spell his name incorrectly on the invoice?”

If the four questions above don’t solve the issue, you don’t have a process problem: You have a people problem.

People-Problem Questions

The wrong person is doing the wrong job.

If you have a great person, they could be doing a job that doesn’t optimally challenge them.

Question 1

First, ask:

“Do they have a clear view of their future in the company?”

In other words, do they see how their progress in this role will affect their opportunities later? Do they believe they’re stuck cleaning the kitchen for life or do they know it’s a short-term step before being promoted to assistant manager?

Set up regular goal-review meetings for your staff.

Question 2

The second question:

“Does their future position depend on success in this position?”

Meaning: Am I judging their worthiness to be a great coach on their ability to sweep the floors?

No one is perfect at everything—not me, not you and not our staff members. The person could simply be in the wrong seat on the bus.

I am not a great cleaner, but I’m a good motivator. Placing me in a cleaning role won’t make me happy—unless I see the big picture and my place in it, with a timeline for advancement.

Question 3

The last question:

“Will this person be part of the team that takes us to the next level?”

The people who got you here might not be the same people who get you there. It’s true of your staff and true of you: While you’re busy developing your entrepreneurial skills with your mentor, your staff might not be doing the same. And that’s OK: They might want to vacuum forever. Some people do.

But when you move to the huge warehouse without carpets, they’ll need a new skill set. And if the staffer isn’t ready to acquire the necessary skills, you have a new people problem. You should chart their career path—or their exit—again.

One of the greatest questions I’ve ever learned to ask is this: “Do you still want to do this?”

Surprisingly, the answer is sometimes “no”—and that’s much better than “maybe” because it allows both the founder and their staff to move forward, even if it’s not together.

Ask and Act

When your staff isn’t living up to your expectations, first assume you have a process problem. But if you’ve satisfied the first four questions above, you have a people problem. That’s tougher but still solvable.

Most of the time, the first question you should ask is, “Am I the problem?” And if you are, create the process that gets what you want, then get out of the way. The greatest gift you can give your staff is the opportunity to succeed.

Other Media in This Series

“When Staff Screws Up”
“The ‘Two-Brains’ Approach to Solving Problems”


One more thing!

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