September 19, 2017

Don’t Blame Your Staff! 6 Steps to Fixing Broken Systems

church systems

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Several years ago, my son visited a fast food chain that serves Mexican food. I would name the restaurant chain, but I’m sure the story I’m about to share was a random occurrence that doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the dining experience they routinely deliver. I’m also withholding the name of the restaurant chain because I’d rather not to be sued for defamation. If I did, I might have to make a run for the border to avoid trial.

My son stepped up to the counter of this fine eating establishment where he was promptly greeted by a friendly member of the restaurant team. Before he was able to place his order, however, the person behind the counter shared this unusual piece of information: “You can order anything on the menu as long at it doesn’t contain beef.”

Now remember, this is a Mexican restaurant. Like other restaurants in this genre, the menu includes items like burritos, tacos, chalupas, gorditas and other fare that typically have beef as  the primary ingredient. (Now I’m second-guessing whether or not all Mexican restaurants serve chalupas and gorditas.)

My son was caught off guard by the news. Generally, when you go to a Mexican restaurant, fast food or otherwise, you assume that beef will be one of the options for your entree, whether it’s on the dollar menu or not. What stunned him more, though, was the next statement that came out of the restaurant worker’s mouth.

Apparently the front-counter employee felt obliged to explain why only items without beef were available to order. The young man explained, “The reason why you can’t order any items that include beef is because our beef tube is clogged.”

You heard me right. The beef tube was clogged.

(I’m sorry. I hope you weren’t eating. I guess I should have warned you that was coming.)

Let’s step back and assess this situation for a moment, shall we? Who was at fault? Was it the “cook” in the kitchen who failed to lubricate the beef tube adequately so that the meat would flow freely onto the tacos? That’s possible.

Was it the fault of the young man at the front counter who should have communicated that more than half the menu items in the store were not available, but not necessarily explain why they weren’t available? That’s possible.

Was it the fault of the shift manager for not closing the restaurant until a remedy was implemented to unclog the constipated tube? That’s also possible.

That’s our natural tendency, isn’t it? When things go wrong, our natural instinct as leaders is to figure out who is to blame. In my experience, though, an individual is rarely the core issue. More often than not, it’s not a “people” issue. Instead, it’s a systems issue.

“Our natural instinct as leaders is to figure out who is to blame.”

I would argue, in this example, that it wasn’t the fault of the cook, the manager or the young order taker. Instead, the problem stemmed from the accepted system of serving beef through a tube. It wasn’t a people problem. It was a system problem.

By the way, you may be laughing at the misfortune of this particular fast food restaurant, but they’re not the only organization I’ve run into that has had a “clogged beef tube” problem. Many times I’ve run into similar situations where an organization’s systems for delivering their core product or service have failed.

For example, I’ve been to the car rental counter with a reservation only to find there were no cars on the lot. I’ve called the cell phone company for customer service only to be transferred multiple times and then experience a dropped call while I was on hold. I’ve stood in the DMV line staring at all the handmade signs on the walls for more than an hour so that I could process a transaction that could easily have been handled online.

In each of these instances, I could blame the employee for the situation I encountered. The reality, though, is that these examples of poor customer service had nothing to do with the employees delivering the service. The root cause had nothing to do with people. Instead, each subpar experience started with a poorly designed system that was core to the delivery of the business’s primary product or service. In other words, each of these organizations was dealing with a clogged beef tube.

Churches are not immune from beef tube blockages either. Because of that, you may want to consider the primary touch-points where people might take a first or second step at your church.

Here are some examples:

  • If I’m a guest at your church, is it obvious and easy for me to connect and learn more about your ministry or will I have to wait a few months for the next membership class?
  • If I have a child who has never been to your church, is it obvious and easy for me to check them into the children’s ministry area and will I feel confident I’ll get them back unharmed?
  • If I want to try a small group or a Sunday school class, is it obvious and easy to find a fit for me or do I have to wait until the next semester starts?
  • If I want to volunteer on a ministry team, is it obvious and easy for me to find a place to use my gifts and passions or are you going to make me start as a greeter or in kids’ ministry?
  • If I want to contribute financially, is it obvious and easy for me to do that online or from your app using a credit card like I do with every other financial transaction I ever make?
  • If I want to grow in my relationship with Jesus, is it obvious and easy for me to take my next step or will I have to decipher what’s best among dozens of programs and events?

I don’t know what your key touch-points are for ministering to the people connected to your church. What I know is this: If the next steps aren’t obvious and easy, it’s probably not because you have a “people” problem. Nine times out of ten, it’s because your system is broken. In other words, you have a clogged beef tube.

If you find yourself in this situation, let me suggest a handful of steps you might consider to eradicate the blockage:

  1. Ask four simple questions.

    What’s working? What’s confusing? What’s missing? What’s stuck? (For the purposes of this article, let’s go with “What’s wrong?” instead of that fourth question.) These questions will help you identify the core issues that need to be addressed.

  2. Prioritize the key touch-points first.

    Which ones will most impact first-time guests? Which ones will impact the most people? You can fix the others after you first focus on what’s most important.

  3. Eliminate as many steps as possible.

    If you get it down to three steps, how would you get it down to two without compromising the end results? Less is more when it comes to developing a system that can be repeated well.

  4. Pursue a solution that just about anyone could handle with appropriate training.

    If only one talented person can do it, then you don’t have a system. You have one talented person.

  5. Write it down.

    Not literally on paper. Who uses that anymore? Find an online solution to capture your primary system flows so that it’s easy to replicate the process and train someone new. We use Asana for this at The Unstuck Group.

  6. Evaluate your results.

    Did it work? Is it still working? One of the common attributes of a church in the maintenance stage of the church life cycle is that they’re more focused on how they do ministry rather than why they do ministry. If your methods or systems don’t accomplish the why, then you need new methods or systems.

If you are a fan of Mexican fast food, let me put your minds at ease. To my knowledge, this is the only instance of a clogged beef tube that has ever been reported. But, if you ever run into a similar situation, just remember this. It’s easy to blame the cook or the person behind the front counter when, in reality, we should be pinning the blame on a broken system.

Do you hear me, Broken Systems? I’m talking to you, Clogged Beef Tubes! We know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee!

On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t end this article about a restaurant that serves tacos while referencing a bell…


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