Why the 95:5 is wrong…

Why the 95:5 is wrong… or at least annoyingly over-simplified and misleading. (Ooh, contentious!)

I was engaged in a conversation with a colleague earlier this week which resulted in a discussion on the merits or otherwise of the much-quoted “95:5” concept. That is, that 95% of performance is supposedly caused by the system, and 5% caused by the people. It comes from Shewhart or Deming or Seddon or someone else highly reputable, and is a founding principle upon which systems thinking is built.*

My colleague argued that everything is about the people, because the system is the people who work in it. Without the people, she said, there would be no system – just a bunch of dusty process folders, empty buildings and abandoned silent equipment. Surely, we can’t be saying that we should focus 95% of our efforts onto this, and neglect the humans who make stuff happen within it?

[Paragraph 3] I found this to be a really interesting take on the differences between two theoretical models of work. Model one – let’s call it Purist Systems Thinking – puts all its faith in making changes to something called “the system”, whilst apparently denigrating actions which seek to improve “the people”. Model two – let’s call it People-Focussed Change – puts all its faith in facilitating changes to how people themselves operate, whilst apparently pooh-poohing improvements to processes and systems.

On the face of it, these two models seem to conflict quite significantly. A holder of one set of views can’t accept the other’s position without rejecting a significant chunk of their own position. In other words, it looks like a model clash.

I pondered this dilemma in a half-hearted sort of way, convinced that the two models were not mutually exclusive, yet sure that the sense of dislocation between persons who hold these different beliefs felt absolutely real.

And then, midway through totting up my personal finances and realising that “£ out” was peculiarly out of kilter with “£ in”, I was struck by jove. By Jove, I exclaimed… might this be the reason why these two models don’t see eye to eye?

This: I realised that the difference described in paragraph 3 is not a real difference at all, it’s a mix of semantic misunderstanding and command-and-control aversion. Let me explain.

Many systems thinkers will talk about “the people”, when I think they really mean “lots of persons” with the subtext being “persons acting on their own, within their own abilities and limited sphere of influence”. Likewise, systems thinkers may have a genuine and legitimate distaste for people-focussed improvement initiatives. This is based on frustrating experience or organisations in which improvement initiatives relentlessly focused on ways to get the workforce to put in a bit more effort, based on the faulty premise that everyone withholds a bit of good work waiting to have it teased out of them by bonus or threat of punishment.

Conversely, when my colleague – the People-Focussed Change Agent – talks about change initiatives which focus on our people, she absolutely does not mean those things which attempt to wheedle out a bit more individual effort. She is talking about whole-organisation improvement to how people relate to each other, work together towards the same end goals, and communicate with one another in ways which they couldn’t manage by sheer force of personal will alone.

To a systems thinker, if someone implemented an intervention which got a team to talk better together and work as a cohesive whole, they would definitely consider this to be acting upon the system, not acting upon the people. The systems thinker considers this kind of intervention to be within the 95, not the 5, despite the fact that it’s technically about the people.

And this is where my By Jove moment brought me. The PFCAs and PSTs of the world actually believe in the same things: that the right thing to do is act upon the whole system in which the people work. This includes the characteristics created by the people themselves (teamwork, relationships, trust and communication), which are just as important as the tangible structures and processes which define their task.

So the anodyne moral of today’s story is to look for the similarities rather than the differences.

And as an aside, for the record, this conversation has boosted my morale somewhat because the whole thing was premised upon a major piece of review work for our organisation, which genuinely looks as if it’s aiming to achieve is a whole-system intervention which focuses on all the people, together.



* I hope that sweeping statement gives proper merit to my excellent academic credentials vis a vis the history of systems thinking. (And you thought I’d just read about it on Wikipedia, eh? Oh ye of little faith!)


3 thoughts on “Why the 95:5 is wrong…

  1. semantics, yes.
    i’ve ALWAYS found it annoying when the PFCAs seemingly come across holier than thou, stating that “it’s people that matter”. As if i’m recommending filing some changes to a procedure manual.

  2. I’ve always interpreted 95:5, and systems thinking, to mean “create a system that allows people to thrive and flourish”.

    The problem with what you call People Focused Change is that they get it the wrong way around. I have been involved in one of these initiatives at my work, and it will definitely fail – at great expense to the organisation. It’s already failing. The reason it will fail is because they focus about 95% on the people, and 5% on the system.

    Staff receive lovely fun training where they learn how deal with other people (customers and colleagues) better. At the end of the training they even feel enthused about going back to work and putting it in to practice.

    But when they get back to work it starts to go wrong. They quickly realise nothing has changed. They are using nice positive language but the same old problems keep coming up over and over again. It becomes clear that what they have learned in training has made no difference, so they revert back to what they did before. In the meantime the organisation has spent £loads on consultants, and incurred all the indirect costs of taking people away from their jobs to go on training.

    It would have been much better to work on the system first. Once that has started to improve – and people in the system are able to use methods to keep improving the system – then by all means give them some training on how to talk to people. It would be a nice bit of icing on the cake. But they shouldn’t kid themselves that putting nearly all their focus on the people will bring about any kind of meaningful change.

  3. Spot on! I’ve been troubled by the 95/5 thing for a while, particularly when you sit in a restaurant and feel you’ve been served by the meanest and most surly waiter ever. Deming would put that down to a lack of training, which is the responsibility of management.

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