Life sure is easy if problems are simply the result of someone’s stupidity, their apathy, some other fundamental character flaw. Blame them – threaten them with dire consequences if they let their inherent shortcomings impact the otherwise perfection of our business – problem solved. If it is true that the problem is just the result of someone screwing things up, then we don’t have to do much of anything. Assign blame and walk away.

But a culture that holds processes responsible inevitably leads to hard work. If the problem is not the person, but a poorly designed process then solving it is not as easy as merely pointing a finger. You can point at the process all day long and it won’t fix itself. At the very least we have to burn some brain cells – often a lot of them and maybe burn some midnight oil too – to get to the root cause and come up with appropriate fixes. And then we have to follow up with the Check (the ‘C’ in PDCA); and then maybe go back and solve the problem all over again.

Worse yet, we may well find that the process is designed to inevitably, unavoidably fail. It is likely we have asked (demanded most likely) that someone create square circles. We have not provided adequate time or resources,; demanded perfect quality in a process with a Cpk of 1.2; saddled people with hours of spirit breaking policies and paperwork and then expected them to get as much work or more out the door; demanded 100% on time delivery with low inventory but also expected people to do so within a cumbersome forecast driven ERP system; and on and on. Confronting those dilemmas is real work, especially compared to just threatening someone’s job of they can’t figure out a way to make those square circles.

Management doctrine is chock full of Management by Objectives, stretch goals, and motivational claptrap as though the key to better results is to simply put more pressure on people. Management education centers on how to calculate and interpret ratios and results figures, but spends virtually no time on how to construct processes to get better results. No wonder most companies churn through people continuously, but rarely get any real improvement. Senior managers spend all their time working on mergers and acquisitions because they generally have little idea how to improve the core processes of the business they already have.

I have written before of the great advice I received early in my career, namely, that when someone comes to you saying either tougher discipline or a reorganization is needed in order to solve a problem it is usually proof positive that they have no idea what the problem really is. I would add to that, they probably don’t really want to know because the real problem requires hard work to solve.

Companies with a strong, lean culture work harder than those that don’t.

In his book on creating a kaizen culture Jon Miller says the attributes of a company with such a culture include creating “an environment in which the exposure of problems, abnormalities, and inconsistencies is not only allowed but encouraged”; following “a common approach to solving problems scientifically”; and making “decision based on data and facts”. Simply blaming someone for “problems, abnormalities and inconsistencies”, rendering a subjective judgment of someone’s character and solving problems based on such subjective conjecturing is the easy and all too common theory of management, and a terribly ineffective one.

It is ironic that most people think of culture as touchy-feely; simply being nice to each other, when it is in fact a commitment to working harder than before.

Should come as no big surprise, however, should it? The key to success in just about any endeavor is hard work. Creating and sustaining a culture of continuous improvement and effective results is no different. The hard working succeed, while the lazy fail.