Discovery Surveys, Inc.
Specializing in Employee Opinion and Customer Satisfaction Surveys
Improving the Workplace

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. President of the Discovery Consulting Group, Inc.

4 out of 10 employees say their company does not provide them
with the tools and equipment they need to do their jobs well.

My sister (for those of you who have read my book, you may be all too familiar with her many employment woes) recently lost another job.

For the past year she worked at a small property management company. Her job was to manage the payroll. Even before she was hired, her soon-to-be boss warned her that three people had failed at the job within the last 18 months. She had never failed on a job and always had received outstanding performance ratings. She needed the work and so, with some trepidation, took the job.

My sister has had a great deal of experience managing the payroll for several companies. Immediately she realized that this company was making it extremely difficult for her to succeed. They would not allow her to use the proper payroll software, a standard practice in most companies. Instead, the majority of her job involved time-intensive, manual entry of payroll data on to spreadsheets from poorly kept hand-written records collected from each employee. Most of the records arrived at her desk only a few hours before the payroll was due.

One day, after more than 11 months of error-free work, a small typo out of her many thousands of hand entries was found in one of the spreadsheets. Incredibly, she was ordered to take 2 days off with no pay. "I expect 100 percent accuracy 100 percent of the time," the owner told her. Two weeks later another small typo was detected. Both errors were easily correctable and no one was paid the wrong amount. But she was promptly let go.

The reason she failed — poor management.

My sister was given an impossible job that the company stubbornly refused to change. Instead, this company is destined to continue in their futile search for a person who will never make a mistake.


Employees frequently fail because they are not provided the proper tools, operating procedures, or support they need from management. For example:

  • Sales employees often fail because they are given poor sales leads;

  • Production employees often fail because they do not have the proper tools;

  • Manufacturing employees often fail because of the shoddy raw materials the company procures;

  • Employees often fail because the procedures they are told to use are outdated.

As Frederick Taylor said in his seminal 1911 work, The Principles of Scientific Management, "In the past, the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first." He further asserts that, "the remedy for inefficiency lies in systematic management, rather than in searching for some unusual or extraordinary man."



My advice is essentially the opposite of Jim Collin's suggestion in Good to Great of "getting the right people on the bus." Instead, I believe it is equally critical to make certain that the bus is operating correctly before anyone gets on.

  1. Take personal responsibility when people fail.

    When people fail at a job, senior management should view it as their own failure. They may have hired the wrong person for the job, but more often the problem is that the job needs to be changed so that the probability of success is higher. For example:

    • If a receptionist at a busy office building cannot complete typing assignments because answering the phone and greeting visitors occupies 90 percent of his or her time, the job should probably be changed.

    • If a programmer can never complete projects by the scheduled deadline, perhaps the deadlines are not properly being set or perhaps he or she does not have the necessary tools or support.

    • If production employees too often produce products that do not meet quality standards, perhaps the manufacturing procedures need to be changed.

    • If first-line supervisors do not properly manage their functions, perhaps it is because they are not given the decision-making authority they need to succeed.

  2. Ask yourself – Is this job really do-able?

    For a variety of reasons, success at some jobs is virtually impossible. Many senior managers, however, have never been in the trenches and never had to try to perform the job. If people are failing, I suggest that managers get out there and try to perform it themselves.

  3. Benchmark and share best practices.

    If one of your locations or departments is producing higher quality work than others, find out why. Examine what they are doing well and then use those techniques in your other locations.

  4. Periodically re-engineer the work.

    Re-engineering is the analysis and design of workflows and processes within an organization. Organizations change over time to accommodate changes in their business and the needs of customers. Consequently, jobs and the flow of the work need to change as well. But most organizations do not regularly examine jobs to make certain that the procedures, staffing levels, and equipment are appropriate.

  5. Foster open communications with employees about the work.

    Make it safe for employees to let you know if you are setting them up to fail. An interesting article concerning this recommendation was written by my colleague David Lee and can be found at


When employees fail, it is often management's fault. Take their failure as your personal failure, try the job yourself to see if it is do-able, use the successful practices of other locations or departments, assess whether the work needs to be re-engineered, and foster open communications with employees about the work.


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