Powerful but Invisible Root Causes

Much Lean/Agile/Design Thinking training suggests that if you change a process, better performance will follow.  It often does, but many practitioners are frustrated that their streamlined process design is not delivering as expected, nor is it being followed. This poor performance might be explained by powerful, but invisible root causes.

As change agents, this reduces our effectiveness, and creates cynicism – “I told you this wouldn’t work’”, or “you can’t change anything around here”, missing opportunities to create more value.

If you only consider factors that are visible on a process or design map, then it is likely that you are not going to be successful. We need to go beyond traditional analysis by examining the enablers of performance.

Enabler (plural enablers)

  1. One who helps something to happen
  2. One who encourages a bad habit in another (typically drug addiction) by their behavior
  3. One who gives someone else the power to behave in a certain way.

If the right enablers are in place, then there is a stronger chance that the solution will stick and will deliver results.  If they are not in place, it is reasonable to expect continued low performance.  The challenge is that these enablers are often not visible to the eye – their impacts certainly are, but they, themselves are usually invisible, and thus go unaddressed.

An example:

You’ve streamlined an approval process, removing the input of four stakeholders who weren’t needed in the process.  The “to-be” map looks far slimmer and efficient than the “as-is” map.  You got the green light from the Big Boss to implement it.

You implement the new, streamlined approval process.  Weeks later, those stakeholders that you wrote out of the script start getting consulted again.  Then, months later, they find their way back into the process, as an informal but mandatory step. The process slows down. What happened?

An enabler that we often see in these types of processes is “mindset”, or our way of thinking.  In this case, the original mindset of the people working in the process was: “if we want to avoid risk, we need to consult as widely as possible.”, based on the hidden assumptions of:

  • Consulting fewer people = more risk, because we might miss an important detail by not consulting so broadly.  Plus, 
  • the more people that are consulted, the less chance there is of any one of us getting in trouble if this file fails.

What happened in this example is that the process changed, but the enabler (mindset) did not.  As a result, which one wins? The old mindset, of course.

In our research, we analyzed organizations that sped up their processes by 70-90%, improved quality dramatically, increased employee engagement and sustained that performance for years.  In this analysis, we examined which enablers of performance they addressed to get there, and conducted an exercise to see what caused what.

The results were fascinating.

Not quite making the top 10 enablers of performance were some familiar-looking suspects:

Information flow
Does the right person have right information in right format at the right time to do the right thing?

Unclear roles & responsiblities
Who does what, when, to make the work flow?


Is the business process optimized to create flow and value?

Skills gap
Do the right people have the right skills and experience to do the work well the first time through?

Tools and technology gap
Do the tools we use do the right thing, effectively and easily, the first time through?

Rules/policy gap
Right rules/policy in place to promote flow?

Governance gap

Right decision-making structure to promote flow?

Measuring the wrong thing
Are the right things measured, leading to the best decisions?

Likely few of factors on the list above are surprising – they all seem to enable good performance.

In the top 10 (in terms of impact), were some familiar factors:

Variation in intake volumes, staff levels, leading to…. (see below)

Unreasonableness or Overwhelm

Humans in the process have more work or complexity than they can reasonably handle, reducing flow

Wrong incentives/disincentives

Incentives or disincentives cause the wrong behaviours – impeding flow.

Then, at the top of the list, are some eye-opening factors. Their effects are very visible on a process map, but they, themselves, are typically invisible.

A sample:

Poor understanding of client value

Not understanding the client’s true needs, so over-delivering in some areas, but under-delivering on other, critical areas.

Unclear process ownership

When the process spans multiple functions, often there is no process ‘owner’ or ‘champion’ to ensure flow and smooth value creation.

Process/design performance is invisible

It is difficult to solve problems that you cannot see.  If the end-to-end process is invisible, the local ‘islands/silos’ will likely be optimized but not the end-to-end flow.

Trust and psychological safety

Absence of trust / psychological safety causes thicker silos, excessive “checking” activities; long, heavy processes; more documentation; little collaboration and innovation; and effort spent managing impressions instead of improving and performing.

Mindsets and Behaviours

The way we think about the work.  The way we think about the work guides how we manage people, process and technology.  It is responsible, at least in part, for just about everything else on this list.

In this content area, we cover:

  • The top 20 enablers of high performance from our research
  • What the positive impacts of each are; what happens when each enabler is not optimized.
  • How do you assess the alignment and gaps for each of these?
  • How can we rank these so that they can be addressed in the right sequence?
  • Strategies to align these enablers and close these gaps.
  • How to get your leadership group thinking about these enablers, and closing these gaps.
  • How to create a practical plan to get started
Enabler (2007, November 12) In Wiktionary. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/enabler


  • 90 minute talk
  • One or two day training workshop to identify gaps in enablers and create a practical plan to close them
  • Consulting engagements to work side-by-side with you to assess and close enabler gaps
  • Mentoring to keep you on course