Improving Performance Doesn’t Mean You Do Performance Improvement

Okay, I’ve got a pet peeve—something that really pushes my buttons.  The data from a host of sources has continually shown that organizations and executives are placing more emphasis on “performance.”  Leave aside the reality that many of them (organizations and execs) don’t really know what performance is in this case (below the organization level of profits or sales or end results).  But almost everyone in the HR field therefore knows there is more emphasis on “performance.”

So part of what we see is for people (internally as well as external consultants) to tack the word “performance” on to what they do.   We see “performance-based training” or “performance-enhancing facilitation” or “performance-driven HR” or some other variation.  To me, this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the performance improvement field. Continue reading

Performance – And Performance Appraisals

Intellectually, everyone gets the value of performance appraisals.  Yet every client I’ve ever encountered usually bemoans the process and most employees criticize the appraisals.  Why is something that should have so much value end up being so belittled?

Organizations do lots of things wrong when it comes to reviews.  There is a tendency to spring the final evals on employees as a surprise.  I have lost count of the number of people who told me that they came out of their appraisal session in shock—having heard things they didn’t expect.  One basic rule of the formal appraisal is that nothing in that session should come as a surprise to the employee—it’s just a formal meeting to review and sign-off on informal coaching and counseling that went on earlier during the year.  Another issue is the tendency for managers to put off appraisals until the last possible moment.  There are lots of reasons this happens.  In some cases, it’s about avoiding unpleasantness or confrontation.  In others, it’s because it’s a hassle to do the appraisal paperwork and prepare for it—often because the criteria are so subjective. Continue reading

Data and Information

Performance consultants believe strongly in evaluation–in checking to see if our work has made a difference. And to evaluate means to collect data.

Lots of people collect data. The problem is that just because you can collect that data doesn’t mean it’w worth collecting. I run into clients all the time to ask me to gather particular information or are so proud about the data they do collect. A classic case consists of some of the training data that many learning and development departments collect annually. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a lot of training shops to gather and then aggregate such information as: the total average score (from a 1-5 Likert scale) of all training classes, or total number of employees who attended training. Think about those two measures for just a second. If the average evaluation score for all classes goes up or down, does that prove anything? First, if people like (or like less) a particular course, that doesn’t mean it was an effective training program. Second, if the overall score goes up or down, that’s not a meaningful measure of the department’s performance. Scores could have gone up because people are taking different classes (that are more enjoyable to take). Lots of corporate climate survey questions may seem important on their face but under deeper examination really don’t tell us a lot.

One of the things I typically ask clients when they appear to be on one of these data goose-chases, collecting all sorts of data that I’m not sure is that valuable is to ask the client a simple question. I ask “what will you do with the data?”. That question stops a lot of clients in their tracks. They might have reasons for why it’s useful to gather that data (“it tells us if the training department is doing a better job” or “we want to know if the employees like our office space”) but those don’t explain what they’ll DO with the information once they get it. Would they realistically award bonuses to staff (or conversely–fire or demote people) because average Likert scores changes? If employees indicated that they didn’t like the office space, does that mean they’d buy new furniture?

Asking clients “what will you do with that data?” is a really good reality test for some types of questions. It forces clients to explain what they intend to do with the information once they get it. And what you’ll often find is that clients say things like “it will tell us if the training courses are valued by the employees”–in which case maybe we should ask that question instead (or look at other indicators like–how often employees blow off classes they’e signed up for) Or if they want to know if employees like the office space as a clue to determine if they’ll leave, maybe we should just measure employee retention and then do exit interviews to better assess why employees leave.

The Checklist Manifesto

Anyone who is familiar with my work or my publications knows that job aids are near and dear to my heart.  My third book (Job Aid Basics) is about the subject.  Any serious performance student or consultant knows about the power of job aids—about how they are a cheap and effective way of improving performance.  Well, there is a great new book out by Surgeon Atul Gawande called The Checklist Manifesto.

Checklists are just one example of a job aid.  What is a job aid?  A job aid is a device or tool used to improve memory or confidence on the job and thus overall performance.  A wrench is not a job aid (it’s just a tool).   But a checklist (which reminds us of what to do), a recipe with steps (so we don’t add the eggs too soon), a trouble-shooting guide on how to figure out why the car doesn’t start—these are all job aids.

Gawande writes about a number of examples in this great book but his first primary examples involves healthcare.  He examines the case of the Johns Hopkins ICU where using a simple 5 bullet checklist, the staff reduced central line infections from 11% to 0% saving an estimated 43 infections, 8 lives and 2 million dollars per year.  Gawande and a team then went to a number of hospitals around the world and tried the same approach from rural Tanzania to Seattle.  Using a 19-point checklist for surgery, they found that EVERY hospital experienced a significant drop in post-operative complications and deaths.  In the 6 months after the checklist was introduced complications fell by an average of 36% and deaths fell by an average of 47%.  This was no new technology, no other major changes or influx of talent or resources—just the use of the checklist during surgery.

Performance consultants know about job aids.  Joe Harless gets credit for having coined the term.  Job aids are often a faster, cheaper alternative to training.  They’re an underutilized way of improving performance and a useful tool in the performance consultant’s tool box.

Gawande has done us performance consultants a tremendous favor.  He’s got a significant following (staff in the Obama White House look at his writings, both this book and his previous one Better about improving performance).  Dr. Gawande has provided very specific, tangible and quantifiable examples about how performance can be radically improved with even just simple tools or approaches.  For all the clients out there who want to throw training at the problem or rehire a work force or change the bonus structure, Gawande’s work is a useful tool to help us make the case for a performance-based approach to improvement.

Performance Consulting and the Holidays

You may be one of those people who has spent a chunk of your time this holiday season doing some serious, big-time shopping. Whether it was face-to-face or online, at one point or another, you probably encountered some service failings. Maybe it was the inability of the clerk to answer your questions. Or the online database that kept you from purchasing that gift that would have been just perfect for your dear Aunt Margaret. Or the sales associate that was rude or unwilling to help. And, your initial and dominant response in those situations was probably one of aggravation and frustration with thoughts like “whatever happened to customer service in this country?” or “how do they expect to get any sales with experiences like this?” And I won’t even address what it was like trying to find parking at the mall or dealing with rude, pushy shoppers.

Here are a couple of suggestions for you when you encounter that situation…

First, be willing to rise above such “slights” and be bigger than the moment. This can be a very special time and it’s a shame to instead let someone else push your buttons and thus fail to enjoy all of the pleasures around you. Regardless of your religious beliefs, this time of year should be about bigger things than paybacks or complaints or upsets.

Second, put on your performance consultant’s hat. Move beyond the initial, gut reaction of why this behavior or experience happened. Treat this experience as if you were a performance consultant on assignment and you were supposed to deal with this specific task. How could you calculate the business impact of the performance issue? What contributes to this “sub-optimization”? How could you define the desired performance in a way so it was phrased as an accomplishment that could be objectively measured and replicated consistently? What environmental factors contribute to this performance gap? What information sources would you want to be able to find out the answers to these questions–who would you want to observe or interview? And think about your consulting skills too…when your spouse or roommate offers one of these venting stories (“You wouldn’t believe about this jerk I had to deal with trying to order that gift for my parents!”), ask the questions you’d need to ask a client that would move them from a frustrated insistence on training as a fix to instead a deeper understanding of what the problem is and how it persists. If you can’t get that kind of understanding with someone you love, how do you expect to do it with a client who is far less emotionally connected to you?

Third, go out and do something special for someone you love. Or someone you don’t know. Rather than getting stewed at the bad experience, bring some good into your little piece of the world. Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. Give back. In some small way, look for opportunities to help others or make the world a better place even if only in a modest fashion. Those things should be part of the holiday season and yet aren’t limited to just the holidays. And I’d like to think that being a performance consultant is consistent with all of it.

Peace and happy holidays to you.


Elevator Speeches and Old Friends: A Perspective From South Africa

I welcome the chance to contribute to the Willmore Consulting Group blog. Joe, your comments and cautions about the relative merits of an”elevator pitch” and “audio logo” for performance consulting are probably an appropriate way for me to link up with you again, after our interesting discussion in Washington DC a few months ago, during the ASTD conference there. In fact, it was probably my old (correction: venerable? valued and versatile!) friends Jim and Dana Robinson who introduced me to you, as well as to the concept of a performance consulting “elevator pitch” back in 1981, when they first came out to South Africa on a combination honeymoon trip & “Partners in Change” analysis of our performance improvement strategies in the Edgars Retail Group, which covered over 300 branches in several Southern African countries. As the Edgars Group Training & Development Manager, I had met Jim at ASTD in Anaheim in 1980, as well as comparing our learning, goal setting and basic performance management approaches with what was being achieved in JC Penney, Sears Roebuck, and other US retailers.At that time, we didn’t even know what an “elevator” was, as we used “lifts” to get us up and down our buildings…….but Dana and Jim soon got us all reviewing the many organisational and leadership factors that were enhancing or inhibiting learning, motivation and results, in our complex company and society. The initial scepticism of divisional HRD and line managers about “what can these Americans teach us, after 3 weeks in Africa?”, was replaced by enthusiastic responses to their practical questions and assessment tools, which subsequently became embedded in the corporate culture……and Edgars executives became recognised as thought leaders in assessment centres and innovative merchandising. Continue reading

Why Organizations Should Test Employees

I met Joe a dozen years ago when I was working at ASTD and he was on the ASTD Board and a frequent ASTD contributer/presenter.  We collaborated on ASTD’s venture into the world of HPI when as the staff person responsible for developing the HPI Certificate Program I asked Joe to work with me on the capstone course and become one of our facilitators.  Over the years we have touched base a couple of times a year and I have always enjoyed talking with him about performance improvement stuff.  I am sure Joe will tell you that I enjoy pushing the envelope – I have even gone as far as to tell students involved in my old ISD graduate program that they are wasting their time if all they want to do is learn how to develop a better training course.  So when Joe asked me if I would be interested in writing for his blog my first question was “are you sure you really want to give me a venue for expressing my ideas?”  He said he was…so here we go.

I am going to start this blog entry off with what I hope is a thought provoking story. Continue reading

Explaining What Performance Consulting is to Clients

When I was initially starting out as a performance consultant, clients used to ask what that title meant—what is a performance consultant? And I’d stumble into a definition of what human performance improvement is and what distinguishes it from other approaches only to discover that after about the second sentence my client’s eyes had usually glazed over. Typically we, as performance consultants do a lousy job trying to explain to clients what it is we do and why it works. And the biggest reason why this happens repeatedly is that we fail to see (or hear) things from a client’s perspective.

An accurate definition of HPT or HPI may be fine and good but frankly, most clients don’t care about the academics or the theory. Their focus is more likely to be on: “what can you do for me?” Now if a client wants to know how my approach differs from that of someone in another field, I’m more than happy to provide a performance consulting model or explain particular aspects of the process. But now, when talking with clients, my explanation usually is about the payoff to the clients—the business result. Most of the time I tell clients (especially executives) that I’m a “business consultant.” Because, frankly, the process I use (performance consulting) is of secondary interest to my clients—what they want are results. Continue reading

Natural Talent? I Think Not.

We’ve probably all heard a reference to someone as having “natural talent” or being “particularly gifted in an area” or even being a prodigy.  Such claims are often made about athletes or musicians but you will hear them about just about any kind of profession.  And they’re complete bunk.

Professor Anders Ericsson at Florida State is the leading researcher into what has now become known as “Genius Research”.  Ericsson and others look at what it takes for someone to become an outstanding performer in their field.  What they’ve found out is that raw talent, even physical ability (like size in football or height in basketball) make very little difference in determining whether or not someone becomes great or not.  Instead, it’s primarily about two different factors:

  • How much you practice
  • How well you practice

Let’s take a look at each of these factors. Continue reading

Day One Problems

Jim Fuller is a great performance consultant with a couple of fine books to his credit.  He also played a key role in getting performance consulting functioning within Hewlett-Packard.  It was also Jim who introduced me to the concept of a “Day One Problem.”

A “Day One Problem” is a situation where things have never worked from day one.  It’s an engine that never ran, the customer fulfillment process that was mixed up from the start, the sales department that never met quota, or the team that was always substandard with their work products.  Why do we care about whether or not a problem is a “Day One Problem” or not?

Continue reading