Blame the process, not the people
Brad Cairns is the senior principal at The Center for Lean Learning as well as running a woodworking business called Best Damn Doors in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, where he puts lean thinking into action every day. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].

It doesn’t seem to matter where I go, the story is the same from all business owners: “It’s impossible to find good people.”

I’m sure we can all relate to this story. You have a manufacturing plant full of people, they are all scurrying around and if you stop for a second to watch them, you almost feel as if they are purposefully trying to avoid work. And there is a good possibility they are looking up at you thinking the same thing. “Doesn’t that guy have anything better to do than to stare at me all day.”

At some point you get curious as to why it appears the work is barely getting done. You stop someone and ask, “Hey, what are you looking for?” or “Where are you going?” or “What is it you need?” They begin to tell you, and the answer is so obvious that you just blurt it out. Whether it was a detail on a drawing, the location of a tool or what jig to use, it was obvious to you.

As you make your way back to your office, you can hardly believe you had to answer such a simple question. You start to question your HR process for hiring and wonder where you managed to find this band of misfits. “I will throw myself under the bus,” you say to yourself. These have been my exact thoughts.

Why do they struggle?

I’m sure we can all agree that if we could just find better people, our business would flourish. We could go on holiday and not worry about the place falling apart in our absence. Heck, we could afford to go on holidays!

What if we stop there, and now ask the most valuable question of all: “Why?” Why would we flourish with a few more rockstars on our payroll? Why do our people struggle? And most importantly, why do we immediately blame them for the problems?

We all have one or two of the people we would love to clone, they are the dream employee. They never ask questions, they always know what to do, and their work is always done right. A pleasure to be around, because in a nutshell, they don’t bother you.

What about the ones struggling? They are the people who lack the confidence to make a decision on their own, are afraid to make a mistake and may not yet have those valuable years of experience under their belt. So, they are constantly seeking clarity, and if you’re the one with the answers, these people can get really annoying. But, believe it or not, they are the ones asking all the right questions.

Last but not least, we immediately blame the people because we are just like water and electricity, we love the path of least resistance. Blaming the people is fast, easy and seems obvious. 

Back to the source

Lets head back to the Gemba for a second (Gemba: where the work is done). It’s important to understand the fundamentals of what is actually happening. All of these people are stuck in a process, typically created by management. The fact that there is a distinct difference in your people is a clear sign that processes could use some improvement. Some people can navigate that; with every roadblock, they use brain power to overcome it. But don’t kid yourself, each time they need to use their superpowers, there is a costly delay, they just might not bother you with it. With others, work comes to a screaming halt, which you find out about right away, hence the annoying part, right?


Rather than being annoyed, we switch on our lean brain and realize every question they encounter is a golden opportunity to improve our processes!

After all, a part of your daily operations should be dedicated to problem solving, (not to be confused with the all-too-familiar “fire fighting”). If we set aside time for purposeful problem solving, how do we know where to get started? For this, I will refer to my favorite quote about lean: “Smart people can’t believe it’s this simple.” You just sit back and wait for the onslaught of questions from your team. It could be as simple as “Where is the wrench?” to “How deep do we make this dado?” and everything in between.

Don’t just answer the question. Take the time to make sure that question can never come up again.

Identify struggle

The other half of improving your process comes from being able to identify struggle. Our people overcome this in so many ways because they truly want to do a good job. They use muscle power, brain power or just simply tough it out. Look for anything that would make the job easier or more enjoyable. Your people will get happier, and your process will get faster with each simple fix.

Fixing questions and eliminating struggle will evolve your processes beyond what you ever thought possible. We all want the big breakthroughs where productivity jumps 30 percent over night, and while those are certainly possible, there is just as much opportunity solving the seemingly smaller issues. And, it just so happens that those are more abundant, easier to find, and almost free to fix.

You can get a long way with the simple phrase “Wherever the question is, the answer should be.”

When there is a question, that is a surefire signal your process is broken. With each question you open the door for an assumption. The only thing I know from my own personal experience, if there is a 50/50 chance of a right decision, I will pick the wrong one!

Everyone can do it

You don’t have to have a fancy university degree, or be a process engineer with a degree in flow mechanics to develop world-class processes. Every person on the planet is already programmed with that ability. The talent we all need to develop is an eye for struggle and then understanding that it’s almost always the process, not the people. Fight the urge to blame your people, accept the fact they are stuck in the process you created and help them develop solutions. If you’re the leader of any sized organization or team, this is a very large part of your job. I can’t count the number of factories I have been to where the shop floor team members say, “I have told them this 1,000 times and no one listens.”

We are all guilty of thinking “It’s impossible to find good people.” I just wonder if we could survey our employees, would they say, “It’s impossible to find good leaders.” People are only as good as the process they are stuck in.

Blame the process, not the people.



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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].