Engineer Systems, Not People

Don’t try to do this…

There’s been a problem that I’ve been seeing more regularly that needs addressing. When people want to change how things are done, especially in the workplace, they tend to believe that the way to do so is by retraining people. The reality, however, is that this is rarely the case. Instead, they should consider reengineering the way systems operate rather than trying to reengineer the people themselves. To highlight this point, let me give you a scenario.


A grocery store wants to eliminate its use of plastic bags during the checkout process. The manager in charge of implementing this new policy has two options. Which is better?

  • Option 1: Instruct the employees who bag the groceries to stop using the plastic bags and instead use the paper ones. The plastic bags will be left at the bagging station but should no longer be used.
  • Option 2: Remove the plastic bags from the bagging station and inform the employees who bag groceries of the new policy.

Downsides of Option 1:

  • Employees have to remember the new policy. For employees who have been using plastic bags for years, getting out of this routine can be very difficult.
  • Customers may request plastic bags if they are clearly still available, leaving the employees in an awkward position of trying to appease both the customer and employer.

Downsides of Option 2:

  • Customers might ask for plastic bags, so employees have to explain the new policy to them.

The downsides to both options need to be overcome, so what are some options for doing so?

Overcoming the downsides of Option 1:

  • The manager must supervise and remind employees not to use plastic bags.
  • A manager might need to be present to explain the policy change to customers, which is still unlikely to appease them if they know plastic bags are available.

Overcoming the downsides of Option 2:

  • A sign could be put up next to the bagging station that informs customers of the new policy. The employees can refer to the sign if they are asked why plastic bags aren’t available. This eliminates the need to get a manager involved, since the signs are already often used to convey official information to people.

In this scenario, Option 2 is the superior choice, because it does not go against human nature. If no plastic bags are available, the employee won’t accidentally use them, and customers won’t be as likely to challenge the policy if there is no option to use plastic. They may complain about it, but if all of the plastic bags have been removed, they will understand that they don’t have a choice, which then eliminates confrontations between employees and customers.

Applying This to Your Life

Change is always required to continually improve how things are done. When deciding how to make a positive change, these are two things you should ask yourself:

  • Does my change require a lot of effort to retrain people?
  • Does my change go against human nature?

Here are some tips to avoid running into these two problems:

  • Re-tune or reuse existing systems people are already familiar with to implement your change. Example: If you want a way to share information about your company’s payroll system, put that information in a frequently-used place like your company’s wiki or internal forum. It’s okay to send out an email about it, but don’t rely on email as the way to disseminate this information. Emails are easily lost, don’t get sent to new people who joined the company after the email was originally sent, and can’t be updated. A centralized location everyone already uses is much better.

  • Don’t tell people to change their processes. Propose a process change and then re-engineer your systems to accommodate for those changes after buy-in from your colleagues. This means only one person needs to do the work to change a system rather than a whole team needing to change their habits.

  • Re-engineered systems should be as close to foolproof as possible. Remove obstacles for people when possible. Design the system so it can be used intuitively. Like in our example above, if you remove the plastic bags from the system, it’s now impossible to use them; there is no need to constantly remind anyone to no longer use them.

  • Label things appropriately. If your colleagues use one terminology to refer to something, don’t use a different term just for the sake of being more technical. If appropriate, use both terms as a subtle form or retraining.

  • If you find yourself needing to remind people to change the way they are doing things, you should see if there’s a problem with the systems in place. If you have competent colleagues, they should not need to be reminded constantly to do something in a different way. More likely, your current system has failed.


It’s hard enough being a human and adapting to the relentless pace of change in modern life. Expecting people to remember how to do a new process, especially if they’re used to an old process, is a good way to set yourself up for failure. The less you have to retrain people, and the more you can incorporate ideas and systems they’re already familiar with is what you should strive for if you want the best chance of success. Ideally, a new system should require the users to not have to remember anything at all and be perfectly intuitive. Though it’s hard to design such a perfect system, the closer you can get to it, the fewer problems you’ll have with it in the future. Users of the new system will also appreciate the effort and be more willing to adopt something that’s easier for them to learn.

So, that’s it—change the world one system at a time.

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