How to be Tough on Process, Easy on People

By Jon Miller Updated on December 7th, 2019

One of the guiding principles for practicing continuous improvement, or good leadership in general, is to be tough on the process but easy on the people. The idea is to create a blame-free but problem-aware environment. This removes fear which in turn allows us to identify and remove the root causes of problems.

Modern continuous improvement practice has its origins in technical and industrial businesses. These were traditionally tough environments. Perhaps because of this or the process-focused nature of the CI we often go easy on the easy and go hard on the tough.

Results-driven continuous improvement leaders can fail to read that people are becoming uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny on the process. Being tough on process and easy on people means staying focused on resolving the issues at hand while maintaining goodwill, relationships and respect for the humanity of the situation. For many of us these are different gears, parallel skill sets.

Although we are all capable of both, each of us is generally stronger in one than the other. We go tough or we go easy. We are process thinkers or people persons. This can be from our nature or from the way we’ve been trained. Leaders who are extreme go-getters or great consensus-builders tend to rise up. There are many effective leaders who manage being tough on process while being easy on people. The rest of us have some work to done on one or both of these areas.

How can we be tough on process and easy on people?

Be tough in setting clear standards. Agree how we work and how we respond to problems. Be uncompromising in establishing these process norms. Be easy by making the standard fair, attainable and not burdensome. Make the choice easy on people. Follow the agreed process and work together to improve it, or to find other employment.

Be tough in keeping people accountable. Be intolerant of bad processes, slow responses to calls for help, or acceptance of waste. Be easy in accepting people’s smallest efforts and most basic improvement ideas.

Be tough in quickly tackling small problems. Be bothered by small deviations from even minor standards. Doing this reduces firefighting and makes it easy on people as there are fewer big problems and less stress.

Be tough on the process of facilitating improvement. Take the temperature of the room. Know your audience. Be aware of how you are coming across. Pay attention to body language, eye contact, tone of voice. How tough we can go on a process depends on how people will perceive what we are doing. Listen. Use the right words. Show empathy. Make it easy for people to come along on the journey by meeting them where they are.

Be tough in getting to real solutions by delving into the past to understanding causes, while remaining solution-focused and future-oriented.  Be easy on people by recognizing the anxiety that comes from reliving past mistakes as part of problem-solving.

Ultimately, every “tough on process, easy on people” interaction an opportunity to shape and strengthen culture. We can set standards that are fair but non-negotiable. We treat people fairly, support and develop them toward personal and organizational goals. When we put people first, communicate openly and honestly, while giving and demanding our best from each other, we attain and surpass our goals.

  1. Ephraim Kamalu

    December 16, 2019 - 7:42 pm

    Thank you very much Mr, Miller for this well articulated piece. Constantly “policing” human-in-process while auditing standards in many cases turned soar as they perceive this as robbing them of their freedom.
    Thumbs up!

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