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Performance Measurement for any Application: We're Doing Great! How Come We're Not Performing?

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC. Adapted from Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development

Suggested Pre-Reading

Overview of Performance Management Process for any Application

Sections of This Topic Include

Myth: "I'll Know Results When I See 'Em"
Training for Skills -- or a Good Time?
What Are You Doing? What Should You Really Be Doing?
Some Reasons for a Performance Management System
Key Terms: Results, Measures and Standards
Performance Problem: Vague Priorities
Weighting Results to Convey Priorities
Measures: Some You Can Count and Some You Describe
Performance Problem: Inconsistent Desired Results Across

Many of Us Misunderstand Performance

You may be losing performance in your organization because you don't really understand what performance is. Certainly, if all employees are getting good performance reviews from their supervisors once a year, then all must be fine, right? Wrong! If the performance of the organization's groups, processes and employees do not contribute directly to organizational results, the organization is not performing well. Neither are the employees or the processes. They're working hard, doing things right -- but they're not doing the right things.

Consider the following, rather simple story. The story points out the typical problems that can come from not having a performance system in place. This story is about a performance problem with employees, a trainer and an organization. The story includes:

The Story

A Common Misunderstanding: "I'll Know Results When I See 'Em'"

Employee Ed is a new employee at a print shop. He has been hired to run a machine that prints out high-quality pictures. The pictures go to other departments, including the Catalog Department, to use in brochures, catalogs, advertisements, etc.

Ed's new supervisor, Supervisor Sam, is new on the job, too. He's worked hard to get where he's at. He was an expert at running the collating machine. Sam's machine took printed images from machines like Ed's and organized them into the Catalog Department's final product, a catalog.

Sam doesn't like Ed at first. Ed looks just like Sam's brother whom Sam does not like at all. Still, as a new supervisor, Sam tries to give Ed a chance.

Sam wants to be sure that Ed does a good job. He isn't all that sure what "good job" means, but he thinks he'll know it when he sees it. So Sam sends Ed to a course to learn how to run the print machine. The description of the course said students would learn all about the machine. That should work out fine.

Training for Skills -- or a Good Time?

Teacher Tom wants to convince supervisors to send employees to his course. Tom claims the result from his course is that each student will know how to run the printing machine. Tom hasn't really thought about how to achieve that result. He knows a lot about the machine and likes to tell people about it. So he thinks he'll be a fine teacher.

Tom includes a lot of lectures in the course. He tells students all about the machine's history, some tough times he had learning about the machine and how students can get a lot done with the machine if they know what they're doing. The rest of the time, Tom tells students how to do the various procedures needed to run the machine. After reviewing the last procedure, Tom tells his students that the course is over. He tells them that they've been a good audience, he enjoyed teaching them and hopes they got a lot out of the course. Tom wants to be sure the course achieves its result, so he has the students fill out a questionnaire.

Ed now likes Tom a lot and feels very good about the course so he gives the course a very high rating. Tom seemed to know a lot about the machine. Tom told a lot of jokes, the room was nice and the materials were very impressive. With all the stuff Tom told Ed, Ed now feels he could do anything with the machine. Later that day, Ed tells Supervisor Sam that the course was very good. Sam is very pleased about his decision and is glad the course accomplished strong results.

What Are You Doing? What Should You Really Be Doing?

The next day, Sam briefly notices that Ed is much happier at his job. "Great", Sam thinks. "A satisfied employee is a productive employee! Right?" (Wrong. Job satisfaction doesn't mean job performance. Some research indicates job satisfaction can actually decrease productivity.)

Later that afternoon, Sam has more time to watch Ed at his job. Soon Sam is horrified! It doesn't seem like Ed knows what he's doing at all! Sam thinks to himself, "I knew Ed wouldn't work out! I just knew it!" Sam glances through several of the prints from Ed's machine. He finds one that's smeared and torn. Sam concludes that Ed didn't learn anything at all. He confronts Ed. "What are you doing? You're slow and all your prints are ruined! You've wasted the company's money!" Ed feels scared and stupid.

Sam and his company have a typical performance management problem. If Sam had followed the principles of performance management, he would have been more clear to himself and to Ed about what Sam wanted as results from Ed's job. Sam would have been more clear about how he would measure Ed's results. Sam would have been more clear about how his expectations, or performance standards, for Ed.

Teacher Tom has a similar problem. If he had thought more about performance results, measures and standards, he would have thought about what knowledge and skills his students would need to run the machine. He would have thought about how he'd know if the students could actually run the machine or not. Also, he would have thought about how well students should be able to run the machine by the end of the course. It's likely that Tom would have included time in the course for students to actually practice on the machine. He would have included some way to test students' skill levels to ensure they achieve Tom's preferred result. He would have included some way to later get supervisors' feedback about employees' skills on the job. It's very likely that Tom's course would have achieved its result: students who can operate their machines to some specified performance standard.

Reasons for a Performance Management System

Back at work, Sam discusses the situation with his Boss Bob. Sam wants to fire Ed -- and do it now. Bob calmly disagrees. He tells Sam, "We can turn this thing around. I'll tell you how."

He begins to give Sam a broad overview of a performance management system. "Basically, a performance management system is a way to ensure we get results from all our employees. Heck, if Ed's teacher knew about performance, Ed might have learned something! They don't call it training any more, you know. They call it Performance Technology or something like that."

Sam interrupts, "Look. I can tell if Ed's doing a good job or not. I've got his job description. I've used the performance appraisal form. Besides, I don't feel good about those performance appraisals. They're just something you do once a year, usually to fire somebody. They're just paperwork. The guys are scared of them. I dread them. I'm trying to build a team here!"

Bob responds, "You don't understand. A performance system is more than job descriptions. A job description lists what duties, what responsibilities a certain job has. It doesn't tell the employee what results are really expected of him, what he's supposed to produce. It doesn't keep telling you, the supervisor, how well you expect the employee to be doing at his job. It doesn't make sure that what you're doing is what your boss -- and their boss's boss and their boss' boss -- want you to be doing."

Bob went on to explain. "A performance system makes sure we're fair to our guys. They're getting paid what they're worth. They know what we want from them. They know what we think about what they're doing. In the long run, all of us in the company end up working toward the same thing. We're all pulling on the same rope. Maybe the biggest advantage is that we're talking to each other about what we're doing, if we're doing it right and if it's really what the company needs. Besides, we managers should have to earn our own keep around here, too. I want you to take part in our performance system, Sam. I'll help you."

Key Terms: Results, Measures and Standards

Bob explains, "In the performance system, the first thing you do in figure out what results you want from the employee.

"Results are what you want Ed to produce so customers can do their jobs well. For example, Ed's internal customer, the Catalog Department, needs high-quality prints to do its job. Right?

"Measures are what you use to know if Ed is achieving the results or not. For example, how many prints is Ed making in an hour? Are Ed's prints smeared, are they torn?

"Standards are what you consider when thinking about how well Ed is doing at his good job. For example, the standard for "excellent" should be at least as many high-quality prints an hour as your best people are producing.

"After we've decided the results, measures and standards, we'll work together to track Ed's progress. We'll make sure that we're all exchanging feedback around here, including with the Catalog Department. That's the most important part.

"Any needs that Ed might have, we'll record on a development plan. That might include more training. This time, we'll make sure that teacher knows about performance management!

Sam heard everything Bob said. He was skeptical, but he decided to try the performance stuff anyway. Anyway, Bob was the boss.

Performance Problem: Vague Priorities

Over the next month, Sam thought more about what he specifically wanted from Ed. He talked to Ed, too. They both decided that Ed would shoot for 500 high-quality prints an hour, 8 hours a day, Monday through Friday. High-quality would mean no smears or tears. In fact, the Director of the Catalog Department would judge whether Ed produced this result or not.

Sam was a little surprised at Ed's reaction. He thought Ed would be a little leery. Heck, Ed didn't seem concerned at all. He was actually excited! Sam actually felt better now, too.

Over the next week, Sam carefully considered the measurements for Ed's result. He realized that Ed really needed more training. "Thank goodness I found this out now," Sam thought. Sam realized this whole situation wasn't Ed's fault. He reminded himself that Ed was new, too. Sam talked to the Training Department. They suggested that Ed go to a workshop where he could actually get practice with the machine. Also, they helped Ed find some free time on another machine during second shift. That way, Ed could get in some more practice.

Ed attended the workshop. He told Sam it was hard, but he learned a lot more about actually running the machine. He said the teacher showed him several things that he could be doing a lot better. Ed was eager to get back to work. Sam felt very relieved. This performance stuff seemed to be working out -- and it wasn't nearly as hard as he'd imagined.

Weighting Results
Several months later, Sam's boss, Bob, told all employees that he wanted them to take part in a Quality Circle. Sam told Ed all about it.

Ed complained to Sam that he just wanted to run his machine. That's why he accepted the job. That's what he wants to do.

Sam is now smart about results, measures and standards. He sends Ed to a seminar on Quality Circles. Maybe that'll get Ed going in the Circles. Ed took the seminar and, sure enough, came back all excited about Quality Circles. Now he spends a lot of time around the coffee machine, telling other employees how great Quality Circles are, where they started, etc.

Soon Sam tells Ed that he's not running his machine anymore. How's he going to produce his results? Ed explains that he's doing his part for his Quality Circle. Ed complains that Sam needs to make up his mind about what he wants Ed to do.

Sam goes back to Boss Bob, asking for advice. How can he get Ed to work the machine and be a good member of the Circle?

Bob explains that Sam needs Ed to run the machine and take part in the Quality Circle. Bob notices that Sam seems puzzled. Bob explains, "Ed can do both: run the machine and be a good Circle member. You just need to let him know what your priorities are. Let Ed know how much time he can spend on his machine and how much time in the Circle. Be as clear as you were before about his results and how you'd measure them. In the performance system, this is called weighting the results."

Measures: Some You Can Count and Some You Describe

Sam nods that he understands Bob. "But how can I measure what he does in Quality Circles?"

Bob explained, "Remember when we talked about measures? There are a couple of ways to look at measures. You can count them or you can describe them -- hopefully you can do both. With the machine, you could count the number of prints Ed produced, right? You noticed if the prints were high-quality or not. High-quality meant the images were clear and the paper was not torn. Right?"

Sam nodded.

Bob went on to explain, "About Ed's Quality Circle, though, it's really hard to count something -- at least not without going crazy! Sure, you can count how many suggestions he makes. But if you do that, he'll be talking all the time and not saying anything! What other ways can you realistically measure what Ed is doing in his Circle"

Sam thought this for a minute. "Maybe I'm making this harder than it is. How about if I notice the attendance record for Ed, you know, you make sure he goes to meetings. I don't want to write down everything that Ed says. Heck, Ed only talks in conclusions anyway!"

Bob responded that Sam seemed on the right track.

Sam explained the new situation to Ed. Ed seemed pleased. "That straightens things out. Sure, I'll try it".

Performance Problem: Inconsistent Results Across the Organization

Over the next few months, Ed ran his machine just fine. His Quality Circle made lots of good suggestions to Sam and Sam's boss, Bob. Soon, though, Ed and Sam notice that nothing was really being done about the suggestions.

Sam confronted his boss, Bob. "You've got plenty of ideas from us. How come nothing is being done about them?" Bob replied, "I know. I'm wondering about that myself. I'll find out."

Bob talked to his boss, Management Mike. Mike looked puzzled. Then he remembered, "Oh, that's right! The Quality Circles! Yeah, those Circles are sure keeping people happy. Keep up the good work, Bob!"

Bob replied, "I thought the Circles were to improve quality, not to keep people happy. What am I missing here?"

Mike explained that he really couldn't implement any of the suggestions from the Circle. "They'll probably just cost more money. Right now the company needs to cut costs as much as possible."

Now Bob was getting really irked. He said, "I thought our performance system was supposed to make sure that everyone was working toward the same goals. Why not have the Circle guys focus on cost-cutting ideas?"

Mike warned, "That could scare them big time! No, keep 'em coming up with good ideas. They're doing great!" Mike looked at his watch and said, "I've got to take off. Sorry. Keep up the good work, Bob!"

Bob left Mike's office feeling very disappointed and sad. He thought, "We have a performance management system. Ed's doing fine. Sam's doing. I'm doing fine. Our department's doing fine. We're performing, right? Sure doesn't feel like it, though."

So: All the Parts Are Doing Just Fine -- Yet the Organization Isn't Performing!

Employees, the department and management are all very committed and very busy. Sam's focused on getting the most from his people, including Ed. So is Bob. They all know the results they want, how they'll measure them and what they consider to be great work. Yet the organization really isn't performing. It's idling along.

This situation is not uncommon.

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