Lee Schafer
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It may look like the state of Minnesota acted just like the state’s best-run companies by holding someone accountable for the mess made of a big licensing agency technology upgrade.

Paul Meekin, chief business technology officer for the state’s IT department and leader of a project known as MNLARS, finally was canned a little over a week ago.

But if you know anything about how companies with good leaders are run, singling out a guy like Meekin to blame and then fire is about the last thing they would do. It happens in business, sure. There are companies run by shortsighted or weak executives.

This is not to suggest that there is a CEO anywhere in corporate Minnesota who would simply shrug off a debacle like what unfolded at the state. They would need to know exactly how a system like MNLARS, meant to let us get a driver’s license or license plate quickly and accurately, became such a mess.

The switch was turned on last summer when it was obviously not ready. For example, a high-functioning system wouldn’t have issued two completely different sets of license plates to my wife for her crossover. She has decided the only sensible option is to wait until the tabs renew to find out which set the state thinks is on her car.

It would be funny if the tab renewal notice arrives in the mail, and it’s for a plate number that doesn’t match either one.

What’s not funny is all the real pain MNLARS has caused deputy registrars and others all over the state. The total cost of MNLARS has ballooned as well, and the governor and legislative leaders have been butting heads over additional emergency funding.

So why not fire the guy responsible for all this? It’s because no one person takes on all the responsibility of a big job like that.

Through a representative, Meekin declined an opportunity to talk further. But he made that very point to the Pioneer Press last week. More than 20 people all agreed to go live with the system last summer. The bureaucracy had made its call.

This might sound like the very definition of the problem, turning something important over to a bureaucracy, but once the term bureaucracy did not mean such a bad thing. What’s worse than a bureaucracy? Chaos, for one thing.

Early innovators of the corporate era in American business, like Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors Corp., were put in charge because a charismatic, seat-of-the-pants leader had already been tried, and someone needed to clean up the mess.

Sloan didn’t want a bloated staff pushing paper, just agreement on the right way to do things in the divisions rather than leaning on the boss’s gut instinct. He also wanted to evaluate all ideas fairly across multiple divisions and only put money behind those that were shown to be most promising.

So new projects for Buick were approved not because a charismatic engineer or general manager promised a breakthrough product — “Just trust me” — but because the team had done its homework. The same process was followed at Chevrolet. It’s true the approach left no easy candidate to fire when things went wrong, on the other hand, a project that had come through a disciplined process ended up with the support of everybody involved.

Like lots of things in businesses, this great idea of having some rules and processes eventually was driven into the ground. By late, corporate middle age, the GM bureaucracy had become so rule-driven that it had become a national joke, while the best corporate leaders had long since started thinking of ways to make the rules serve the customer and not the bureaucracy. Following a process that led to nothing a customer would pay for had to stop. It was just waste.

That idea is part of a set of management principles called “lean.” Another is sometimes called no-blame management. Just like it sounds, this means managers assume that no one screwed up when something goes wrong. A process must be broken.

A good example of how thinking like this gets applied in big, well-managed companies might be what happened at Cargill with something called Project Tartan.

Cargill had started with far grander ambitions for Tartan than something like a new licensing system. One description characterized it as a new system to connect 80 business units in 68 countries through a common business process model, relying on enterprise resource planning (ERP) technology provided by the German software giant SAP.

Minnetonka-based Cargill probably wasn’t thrilled to have to rehash all this, but a staffer confirmed that when the company abandoned the technology project in 2015, the after-tax write-off was about $170 million. The bigger point she made is that Cargill took what it learned and kept moving. It’s now using ERP technology from SAP to manage personnel, manufacturing and other functions.

This is how accountability really works. The job of the senior leader is to dig into the process problems that led to a disappointing result and make sure they quickly get fixed for the next time. It’s not to fire the project’s manager. Something as big as Tartan going south must have disrupted the working lives of lots of Cargill people, but a good-faith effort to identify any executive who may have been fired over it turned up no one.

It’s still possible to get tossed from an organization that recognizes that problems come from bad processes. Misleading the boss is one way, and another is foot-dragging on potential fixes. More information may come out about Meekin’s role in MNLARS. Last week he was hinting at legal action, and the state’s technology agency declined to provide more information. His role has been taken by another executive on an interim basis.

Good luck filling this position. It’s a high-profile job with challenges ahead as far as the eye can see. Legislators are mad and will second-guess every decision. And any candidate with an internet connection can easily find out what happened to the last guy.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302