What Comes First—People or Process?

by John F. Mathias

The respective roles of people and processes form one of the more intriguing relationships in quality work: Quality improvement efforts frequently reveal viewpoints emphasizing either people or processes, which can be challenging to manage simultaneously.

The question remains: Should we focus on recruiting, hiring and retaining the right people or on improving business processes?

Of course, both focuses are important, but stopping there doesn’t help prioritize improvement objectives. Sometimes it seems like the “chicken-or-the-egg” question—people first or process first? Thinking back, I find I’ve wrestled with versions of this question throughout my professional life.

Years ago, in my previous career as a mathematics professor, I knew next to nothing about the discipline of quality. I wanted to improve students’ test score results, but my efforts at collaborative learning, student projects, computer labs, writing assignments and increased feedback to students were frustrating.

In hindsight, I realize I was too busy introducing activities that only confounded the learning process. This, in turn, took my time away from engaging students. I tampered with processes and blamed the students and myself. This experience has been formative on my thoughts regarding quality.

My first exposure to quality principles occurred in my role as a data analyst in the statistics group of a large workers’ compensation insurance company. Responsibilities of the group included the production of reports tabulating numbers of claims and benefit costs.

A typical report might show the calendar year benefits awarded to workers with eye injuries. Problems occurred, however, when suspect data were found, such as an eye injury claim listing loud noise as the source of injury.

The extent of data quality issues was difficult to determine because several groups inside and outside the corporation played a role in claim data definition and input. In planning how to evaluate claim data quality, building the framework of systems thinking proved extremely helpful. Namely, the process principles of statistical thinking formed the conceptual foundation of our quality improvement plan:

  • All work occurs in a system of interconnected processes.
  • Variation exists in all processes.
  • Understanding and reducing variation are keys to success.1

Following these quality principles, our group recommended data audits occur regularly on the entire claim flow process to assess data quality and identify the root causes of errors.

We were disappointed to learn upper management was unreceptive to our audit proposal. During one meeting in which the proposed audit was presented, our department director responded, “We don’t want to make others look bad.” This remark illustrated a challenge to our process perspective. The director’s viewpoint of the root causes of the data problems emphasized the accountability of people over process.

This view of individual accountability is not uncommon. I recently watched a TV interview in which a senator discussed the formation of a new agency dealing with national security. The reporter asked the senator how cooperation would be ensured between existing agencies and this new agency. The senator was diminishing the role of process while emphasizing the role of people. “Personnel is policy,” he said.

The role of process was diminished while the role of people was emphasized. Accounting for these views, a translation from process to a greater attention on people suggests the following principles:

  • All work is done by individuals.
  • An individual’s work is variable.
  • Key to quality improvement is reducing variation by getting the right person into the right job.

Focus on people over process is exactly the opposite approach to quality improvement, as W. Edward Deming’s parable of the red beads taught us. Deming’s message is individuals work in systems beyond their control. It is the system—not individuals’ skills—that determines how the individuals perform.2

So where does this juxtaposition of people and process leave a quality practitioner?

I’ve observed that a focus on people can lead either to management paralysis—when holding people accountable is undesirable—or to process tampering—when people are primarily held accountable. Moreover, this people perspective isn’t helpful when letting people go conflicts with the system mandate, such as in a classroom.

On the other hand, I’ve found it richer to manage processes, to help individuals discover how they can engage and develop their process role, especially process improvement, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of process goals. The development of my leadership style has been shaped accordingly—envisioning processes first and then offering people the opportunity to engage those processes.


  1. Galen Britz, et al., Improving Performance Through Statistical Thinking, ASQ Quality Press, 2000, p. 14.
  2. Mary Walton, The Deming Management Method, Perigee, 1986, p. 51.

JOHN F. MATHIAS, Ph.D., is a senior performance analyst at UBS Global Asset Management in Chicago. He earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Chicago and has served as vice chair and secretary of the Edmonton ASQ section.

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