Not Hitting Your Targets? 3 Reasons You Need to Blame Processes, Not People

Michelle Cowan

The best way to hit your targets – focus on the process

Not hitting your numbers this month? Don’t blame other staff, it’s time to look at how your processes either support or limit your results.

Most organizations set performance targets or quotas for departments or individuals to meet. When reporting time comes (every quarter, every month, or at some other regular interval), departments typically get together and review the results for the period. Managers usually ask how the team can do better, what the team can change, and why they think the results were what they were.

When results don't meet the targets, these conversations often concentrate on what employees can do better, how they can work within the system to do a better job, and how they can improve the way they interact with each other and other departments to enhance performance or efficiency. Although this approach can be productive and lead to better results, it is a battle of diminishing returns. Eventually, employees will run out of new approaches and max out their interpersonal and coordinative abilities. Furthermore, repeated conversations about how employees failed to meet their targets can be demoralizing and demotivating.

Michael Bremer, president of the Cumberland Group and the executive director of Chicagoland Lean Enterprise Consortium, suggests another approach to improving performance: Focus on the process, not on the people. If a process works well and makes sense in the context of people's work, employees will function well within it. Most employees would and could contribute to positive outcomes if given an environment to do so. It is far more productive to focus on streamlining processes and making them better rather than trying to make good employees even better within a broken system.

In a presentation for the AME/APQC Benchmarking Community of Practice, Bremer brought up several reasons why focusing on blemishes in the process is better than focusing on employee shortcomings.

Reason #1:

The act of improving a process, in and of itself, offers employees a chance to develop their skills as problem solvers. It also makes employees feel more connected to and invested in the process.

Reason #2:

Employee feedback is key to continuous improvement. An organization can only benefit from turning performance reviews into opportunities to improve the entire business.

Reason #3:

Regularly involving employees in process improvement minimizes potentially harmful deviations from the process. When employees hear that they are not meeting targets and must improve, they often devise clever workarounds to get the job done faster, better, and with less bureaucracy. Unfortunately, employees cannot always see how these workarounds impact the rest of the business. The shortcut that works for them may bypass a checkpoint that is essential to someone else's work farther down the process.

The employee using the workaround may have no idea that he or she is negatively impacting the process. If the organization focuses on the process and employees feel confident proposing changes to it, there is less chance that workarounds will be implemented covertly.


Although changing employee behavior can lead to substantial performance improvements, changing the process itself provides more lasting benefits. Involving employees in process improvement allows them to develop critical thinking skills and fosters a sense of connection between employees and business strategy and architecture. Employees will generally perform well, given a process that supports, rather than undermines, positive results. If the organization makes process improvement a priority and welcomes employee input, the processes on paper will more closely match real behavior and are less likely to contradict each other or organizational strategy.

Instead of asking your employees what they can do better, ask them how you can all make the process work better. By building the feedback loop and process improvement into a regular review process, you build a sustainable foundation for continuous improvement.



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