Do You Have Great Work Systems?

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

In order to achieve and sustain operational or process excellence, you have to have great work systems. This is easy to say, and for some easy to do. Too many organizations struggle however to install great systems. Even a higher percentage don’t even know how ‘less than great’ (how poor) their current work systems are. In turn, they don’t see a need to improve.

Worse yet, when they do attempt to improve, they try to do so by simply asking people to be more careful, work harder, and be less wasteful. They fail to recognize that a system will give you what it is designed to give you. If your work systems are poorly designed, they will consistently give you substandard results, whether you know it or not.

EXPLORE MORE: Process Improvement Strategies

What is a Work System?

In his book “The New Economics”, Dr. W. Edwards Deming defined a system as being “a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system.” In his book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge, who was a disciple of Deming, adds that systems are “invisible fabrics of interrelated actions which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other.” The human body for example, consists of many different systems – respiratory, circulatory, neurological, etc. – which allow us to exist and live each day. Freeway systems consist of on and off ramps, shoulders, traffic lanes, and signage that work together to help guide traffic to its destination. Work systems exist in a similar sense, even though we may not be aware of their design or of the different aims that they are actually designed to accomplish. In many cases, we simply come to work each day and do things as they have been done by others before us, as well as ourselves, without giving much thought to why we are doing things this way or if the actual results (the real aims) our different systems are producing are consistent with the aims we have stated as desiring..

My operational definition of a system is also based on the use of the term “systematic” in the Malcolm Baldrige National Performance Excellence Award criteria. That definition refers to “approaches that are well-ordered, repeatable, and use data and information so that improvement and learning are possible.” I would say that in most organizations, their work systems are repeatable, even though the results they provide are not actually measured. Unfortunately, the processes that are being repeated each day as a part of a given work system are (1) NOT producing the types of results that are truly desired, (2) NOT being executed in a similar, well-ordered manner across all people and work groups, and (3) NOT using trended data to gauge process performance so that key problems can be identified for the purpose of learning, resolution, and in turn, improvement.

For example, most companies have a planning system that can be defined by looking at the patterns of behaviors that are used to arrive at organizational plans of different types. Different departments or leaders may use a set of processes however to arrive at their plans that is inconsistent with the ones that others in their company use. Few actually measure the effectiveness of their planning process so that it can be further improved over time. They have a planning system, but that planning system is not systematic. I have unfortunately found that in most organizations, this can be also be said for the daily leadership, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, training, measurement, hiring, and other key work systems that are used. Worst of all, because these key work processes are not well ordered or effectively measured, they are waste laden. One the key waste streams being fed daily involves the limited time each of us has to devote to our work each day.

LEARN More: Evaluating Root Cause Analysis Processes


What is the Difference Between a System and a Process?

In short, a system is a collection of processes. For example, a leadership work system consists of several processes, including a development process, an evaluation process, and a expectations definition process. A process is a series of repeatable steps – simple enough? In performing our personal routines each day, we are executing repeatable steps in both a predictable and measurable way (if we were so inclined to do so). We follow a lot of these steps subconsciously. Teeth brushing, showering, driving to and from work, going to meetings, processing e-mail, eating lunch (versus dinner), and managing projects are all examples of processes.

We do the same thing in our organizations – all work is a process. We repeatedly execute a series of steps each day to produce a product or provide a service. We do this as individuals, as teams when we meet, and in the decisions we make as a managers and leaders. Each of these cycles has an average cycle time, a cost, and a degree of somewhat measurable effectiveness other than cost in terms of customer satisfaction. To save money, you reduce cycle time by eliminating non-value added activities. You improve the value added activities so that they provide even greater value. This is not just a work thing – it is just as applicable in our personal lives!

EXPLORE MORE: How Many Processes Do You Own?

If you would like more information about the work system improvement tools I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at

What Does “A System Will Give You What It is Designed to Give You” Mean?

The structure of a given system will give you a certain mix of results, whether you are aware of these results or not. For example, the time that is required for you to travel to and from work each day is predicated by weather systems, highway systems, legal systems, automotive systems, and the various systems in the human organism. You might have a strong desire to cut your travel time to work in half, but if you want to actually make this happen on a consistent basis, you have to change the systems that are giving you your current results.

Similarly, your existing leadership work system is giving you a certain mix of leadership results in your organization. You can ask or demand that your leaders become better process improvers, motivators, or coaches, but this will not happen if you don’t change the systems that are currently being used to develop and evaluate your leaders. You might define the strategic need to hire employees who care more, are absent less, and have higher skill levels, but this need won’t become a reality unless you change the systems that are being used to recruit, hire, and retain employees. If you have a weak hiring process, you will hire substandard people, whether you have a stated goal to avoid doing so or not. If you fail to address employee needs or fairly compensate them, you will fail to retain your good people, whether you like it or not.

EXPLORE More: Safety System Best Practices

How are Work Systems and Culture Change Related?

In my book “You Can’t Win Indy in an Edsel – How To Develop a High Performance Work Culture”, I make a simple statement – change systems to shift cultures. Organizational cultures develop over time, and your existing work culture is shaped by the people your hiring process brings into the organization and the systems that reinforce daily work behaviors and beliefs. You can’t shift a culture towards continuous improvement by simply asking, let alone ordering, people to change. You have change the systems that are used to measure performance, teach people new skills, and reinforce performance expectations. Through my 38 years of work experience and my 18 years of experience as a national Baldrige Examiner, I have been able to define ten key work systems that high performing organizations rely on to help them consistently improve the results their work processes give them over time.

Your existing work systems are reinforcing your existing work culture every minute of every work day. At the same time, our social systems are reinforcing social cultures that also impact the beliefs that our people have about how work should be done and how our internal and external customers should be treated (serviced). Unfortunately, our prevailing social systems don’t promote continuous improvement, lean thinking, or teamwork near as well as they should, and in turn, our work systems should be even more robust in promoting these values that we need to live in order to remain competitive and become great. In most organizations however, they don’t.


The Culture Loop

If you would like more information about the work system improvement tools I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at

How Do I Know If My Work Systems are Great or Not?

Systems assessment begins by measuring and trending the performance of your work systems over time. Without measures, and trends for those measures, you can’t begin to assess systems greatness. You also have to be measuring the right mix of things, as opposed to measuring just certain aspects of a system’s performance. For example, some supervisors only measure throughput, even though quality, cost, safety, and people results are also being generated).

Great work systems demonstrate consistent improvement over time in all areas of importance. Areas of importance are defined both by the mix of performance areas that exist (such as safety, quality, people, cost, and revenue generation) and by the different areas where those results are generated (such as departments, product types, or locations). How great are your work systems?

Once you have determined that your work systems are consistently improving over time in all areas of importance, you are in a position to assess true greatness by comparing the performance of your systems to others in your line of work and outside of your work. The truly great organizations have work systems that produce results which are not only better than those produced by others in their line of work, but are also better than those produced in other lines of work. They are role models.

DISCOVER MORE: Do You Have Great Teams?

How Can I Build Great Work Systems?

In order to build great work systems, you have to improve the processes that are part of each system AND improve the manner in which these processes interface with each other. To improve a process, you have to reduce process waste. This is the focus of most lean and six sigma initiatives, such as kaizen or six sigma teams. Unfortunately, such teams typically make two critical errors.

First of all, they fail to perform effective root cause analysis. Most commonly, we tend to assume that human error is the root cause instead of looking for the systemic causes of repeated human error. Second, we write poor and largely ineffective corrective actions for what may, or may not, actually be the systemic root causes of a problem. In turn, a lot of time and money is wasted, people get frustrated, and the problems keep coming back. We fail to make the transition from reactive work to proactive work.

Each process can be improved by minimizing process waste and increasing the level of customer value that the process delivers. If you don’t also look at how one process is dependant on the results of other process, or plays a role in determining the results of other processes, you won’t be successful. Too many organizations focus only on cost or waste reduction. They fail to also try to increase customer value. They fail to involve their internal or external customers in determining what types of process results are needed or are currently being obtained. For example, in most organizations where lean and six sigma initiatives are being pursued, only 10-15% of the employees are engaged in these efforts.

If you want different results, you have to change the systems which are producing the results you are not satisfied with. That’s the theory, but how do you make this happen? Fortunately, you don’t have to blaze new trails by yourself. There is a small percentage of organizations (I estimate this number at 5-10%) that already have great systems in place. By studying these systems and redesigning your own work systems to better mirror them, you too can get better results.

The primary goal of this website, and Great Systems naturally, is to help you learn from the successes other organizations have realized already. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Some of you may be able to find the work system fixes that are needed simply by reviewing the more than 100 pages on this website. I am also quite willing to work with you personally, via e-mail, telephone, or in a face-to-face manner, to help you improve your existing work systems. If you would like more information about the work systems improvement tools I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at .

Keep improving! Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems