The waitress was late with the food. She looked frazzled and frustrated. After she rushed off, we discovered the salad we requested with dressing on the side was doused in ranch.

Clearly, she wasn’t a good server. Or was she?

Management consultant Edwards Deming said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

I’ll take it a step further.

A bad system will chip away at your soul. Bad systems can turn even the most enthusiastic workers into frustrated poor performers.

Let’s go back to our waitress. The food was late because the kitchen was short staffed that day. Our server had noted salad dressing on the side in the order system. But the salad was mixed before they got to the expo station. The food runner saw dressing on the side, so he added another container of ranch to our plate. As for being frazzled, wouldn’t you be if half your orders were late, and customers were complaining about dressing?

If you’ve ever waited tables, you’ve no doubt experienced this for yourself. The front line often pays the price for systemic failures.

As you look at your own organization, be it your workplace or your home, ask yourself, “Are your systems set up to help people be their best, or do they create obstacles?”

As a consultant, I see organizations try to solve problems by training employees or trying to get better employees. In many cases, the issue is the system.

We recently worked with an organization where customer callbacks were a problem. A few employees were great at calling clients back. But, more often than not, when customers called in with problems, the employees would promise to look into it and fail to call back. Further investigation revealed that employees were making notes with the intent of getting back to customers. Yet as the day wore on, and the tasks piled up, they never circled back. After it sat for a few days, the employees either forgot about it or were too embarrassed to call back.

The leadership team assumed it was a training and accountability issue. If the top performers could do it, clearly something must be wrong with everyone else.

After watching the team for an afternoon, I saw the problem. The top performers had created workarounds to ensure they never lost track of client issues. One woman put post-it notes across her wall, and another kept his client to-do lists on a yellow pad. There was no systemic way for people to log notes and have them pop back up until they were handled.

It’s easy to say people should create their own systems, but individual systems can’t scale.

One of my friends used to keep a birthday daybook. She was great about sending everyone a nice note on their special day. In terms of birthdays, she was a top performer. I always felt guilty not being that kind of friend.

Now, thanks to Facebook reminders, my good intentions can scale. Mediocre me is now a top performer in the birthday category.

If you want your team to excel at scale, look at your systems. Whether it’s dressing on the side, customers call backs or how you handle the laundry and mail, ask yourself, “Is my system setting my team up for success?”

A bad system will beat a good person. A great system will help all the good people be great.

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