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Management Challenge: Performance Management and the never-ending dirve for continuous improvement

by Bruce TulganApril 2016

   Even with direct-reports who are mostly on-time, well-organized, and regularly following good standard operating procedures, the goal is increasingly “more, faster, better.” That’s just another way of saying, “constantly increase productivity and quality.” These are the mantras of continuous improvement. That is the order of the day and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s a lot of pressure.

   Sometimes managers push back: “Do I really need to be driving people all the time? Constantly nitpicking details? When is good enough performance ever good enough?”

   Don’t be lulled into thinking that continuous improvement is only about driving more profits and staying ahead (or afloat) in today’s fiercely competitive marketplace. Yes, you do need to keep increasing productivity and quality to survive and keep winning. But there are even more compelling reasons to stay focused on continuous improvement with everybody all the time.

   Research demonstrates that practicing to get better at something (just about anything) is actually the key to not getting worse. That stands to reason, as human beings are not static creatures. It turns out, if you are not improving at a skill or task, then you are almost surely declining in productivity and/or quality, however slow and imperceptible the decline might be.

   It is not so hard to understand and appreciate this dynamic when you consider elite performers: It is obvious that those with specialized skills or particularly challenging tasks must be dedicated to regular, smart, purposeful practice. Nobody wants to be operated on by a surgeon who hasn’t performed surgery in a year, no matter how great of a surgeon she was a year ago. That’s what we mean when we say someone is “out of practice.” Why do professional athletes “practice” drills in between games? Why do professional musicians continue to practice scales in between concerts? After all, they are already the best in the business.

   Elite performers are so good is precisely because they are always working systematically and consistently on trying to get better, almost always with the regular guidance and direction of a coach or teacher or mentor. Elite performers engage in regular, smart, purposeful practice with regular scrutiny and course-correcting feedback from someone they respect and trust. That’s why true elite performers always gravitate to strong, highly-engaged leaders: They know they need a coach who knows exactly what they are doing; who is in a position to help them do more, faster, and better; who can get them the recognition and rewards they deserve. If you are not that special someone, most elite performers will find someone else. So if you are managing elite performers on any level, take that lesson to heart.

   Strangely, most managers invest most of their performance management time all the way on the low end of the spectrum, coaching low performers aggressively to get them to improve their performance. An employee who develops a track record of failure is the single most likely employee to receive significant scrutiny and coaching from his manager. Of course, it is critical to “performance-manage” the low performers up or out as quickly and mercifully as feasible. But way too many average performers, those who are much more likely to respond favorably to coaching, are neglected as a direct result of all the attention paid to low performers.

   Those oft-neglected “average” employees make up the vast majority of the workforce. They are doing just well enough to escape scrutiny and aggressive coaching, but not so well that they are superstars whom you might be afraid to lose. This is the vast middle—- where most of the work gets done—- exactly where undermanagement is most likely to hide in plain sight. I see it every day in my work with companies of all shapes and sizes.

   The classic case is “average” employees doing “routine” recurring tasks. The employee/team/department seems to be running just fine without much oversight. Maybe the employees in question have been handling the same basic responsibilities for a long time. Maybe the work is low profile with a relatively small impact on the bottom line. Often it’s inadvertent, like so much undermanagement. But sometimes managers do it on purpose, “strategically” neglecting certain employees or teams (or whole departments). The manager might rationalize to himself, “I’m already overworked and under-resourced. Why spend my very limited time on aggressive performance-management with them?”

   Even though they have been doing the same “routine” tasks and responsibilities day after day—-maybe for many years—- it’s critical to keep people focused on continuous improvement, because
   1. Otherwise they are likely ingraining bad habits through repetition without clear metrics and regular course-correcting feedback. Just because they are doing the same tasks and responsibilities, day after day, does not mean they are doing them right.
   2. When it comes to the most repetitive tasks, many employees become so comfortable they grow complacent: “I’ve done this a million times. It’s no big deal. I can do it in my sleep.” It does not feel like a challenge so they put in a tiny bit less effort and maybe they pay a tiny bit less attention to detail.
   3. They likely have blind spots that could be pointed out by a manager. Even some employees who were particularly aware, thorough, and self-critical will have some blind spots.
   4. Even the most diligent employees will (at least sometimes) push themselves a whole lot if they know that nobody is keeping track.

   The key to avoiding those problems with average employees doing repetitive tasks is to not write them off, but rather take their performance seriously, and give it the attention it deserves!

   Performance Management 101

   Employees need to know exactly what is expected and required of them. They also need to know that their performance will be measured based on those expectations and requirements that were spelled out up front—and on nothing else. The key is always framing expectations in terms of concrete actions the employee can control.

   With those measures in place for every employee, the manager needs to monitor, measure, and document every step of the way:

   Expectations. Goals and requirements that were spelled out. Instructions given or to-do lists assigned. Standard operating procedures, rules, or guidelines reviewed. Timelines defined. Deadlines set.

   Concrete actions. Track each employee’s actual performance: What data is tracked automatically? What have you observed the employee doing while watching? What does the employee say when asked about his actual performance? What do his self-monitoring tools reveal? What does your ongoing review of work product tell you? What do you learn about the employee’s actions when you ask around?

   Measurements. How are the actions matching up against the expectations? Has the employee met requirements? Did he follow instructions, standard operating procedures, and rules? Did he meet his goals on time?

   You need a performance tracking process that is simple and easy to use, not cumbersome paperwork that holds you back. Figure out what works best for you.

   Most important, tracking gives you the information you need to revise and adjust your regular performance coaching on an ongoing basis:

     “You did a great job on A, B, and C. You did every item on the to-do list. You followed all the instructions. You followed all the rules. Great job. Now let’s talk about D. On D, you failed to complete items 3, 4, and 5 on the to-do list. Why? What happened? Let’s talk about how you are going to do items 3, 4, and 5. And now let’s talk about E. On E, you missed the following details. Let’s go over the checklist and talk about how you are going to fill in those details.”

   You need to be able to reference your ongoing record of employee performance every step of the way. Make notes before, during, and after every conversation, as necessary. Make notes immediately after the conversation. In between one-on-one meetings, make sure to write down everything of consequence related to that employee’s performance. If you think of something you want to mention in your next meeting with the person, write that down.

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