HR Plans Depend on Human Execution

In July, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 undershot the approach and crash landed at San Francisco Airport, killing three people and injuring dozens more.

After an extensive study by the National Transportation Safety Board, it was confirmed what many believed in the beginning — the cause was pilot error. More than 90 percent of all automobile, bus, train and plane accidents are caused by operator error. Today’s transportation systems and equipment are so well-engineered they often don’t fail without the human touch.

That incident made me think about organizational systems. Why is it that we spend so much time, effort, knowledge and money on management plans, processes and systems, yet have such a high failure rate? Managers are not stupid people, and administrative functions such as finance, information technology and human resources are usually populated by well-trained and experienced personnel. Yet, despite our best efforts, things often don’t work out as designed.

All our systems depend on human execution. There are no autopilots in business management. In an effort to reduce operator error within organizations, we have to make the systems as foolproof as possible.

Over the decades of my experience, I have found there are three phenomena that people respond to, consciously and unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly: leadership, culture and rewards. These should be the bedrock of all management systems.

In other words, when considering, planning, designing, implementing and monitoring an HR program, the underlying consideration is how will the new system fit your organization’s leadership style, cultural mores and reward/punishment system? This makes a bit of extra work because all programs do not fit all organizations. It is a living contradiction of the maxim one size fits all.

It is tempting to listen to vendors’ pitches claiming their products will solve your problem, no matter what it is. Probably the best example is the promise that comes with every software system. Has anyone ever implemented a complex software package as rapidly as the vendor claimed within the cost estimate that came with it? I’m certain that somewhere, sometime, someone will tell me it happened with them, but I have yet to meet that person.

So, let’s look at how the big three affect HR programs, services and systems. First, how does corporate leadership affect a program such as training? The primary question is what is your leadership profile? Describe its principal signature. Is it paternalistic or participative, demanding or easygoing, communicative or secretive?

Fundamentally, behind all the hyperbole, how do your senior executives truly feel about the employees? What does their behavior reveal regarding their beliefs about people when times are difficult? Do they think, as one well-known CEO told me, “Just give them the resources and get out of the way?” Or are they in the camp of another who claimed: “You have to keep a tight rein on them or they will screw it up every time?” If you are planning a midlevel training program, those opposing views may be essential parts of the program design.

The second element is your organizational culture. If you can’t see how this affects performance, consider the difference between the culture of a software game designer and the U.S. Navy SEALS. Put another way, culture can be like a warm soothing bath or a dip in a glacial stream. Organizational culture is pervasive. Directly and indirectly it influences just about everything that occurs. Basically, it tells what is acceptable, what is expected and what is taboo. So, whether you are hiring, training, paying, engaging or retaining, culture provides guidance about how to build and manage the process.

Lastly, all human beings respond to rewards and punishments. All your programs and processes should suggest behavior that will avoid punishment and foster rewards.

As you consider offerings from various vendors, put aside their alleged benefits for a minute and ask yourself how their features correspond with and support your organization’s leadership style, cultural mores and system of monetary and nonmonetary rewards. If you do that, you should be able to minimize operator error across the enterprise.