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Management Challenge: When you have an employee who needs to increase productivity

by Bruce TulganMay 2016

   Productivity means “output per labor unit.” How much work does an employee get done? If an employee doesn’t get “enough” work done, then there are only three logical possibilities: Either that employee needs to work more, faster, or both.

   Simple, right? Just keep that employee in his chair and keep a fire lit under it.

   But it’s rarely quite so simple. Let’s assume you are already coaching your employees as needed on the fundamentals of self-management, so your direct-reports are already tuned-in to living by a schedule and working a plan.

   Managers ask me every day, “What about the employee who is in his chair working all day but just seems to work very slowly? How do you help that person speed up and start working at a faster pace?”

   Here’s what usually happens: Assuming you have “metrics” in place, the manager shows the employee the “numbers” and says, “your number is short of your goal.” The “numbers” are essentially a performance quota: The number is how many units an employee is expected to produce in a certain period of time. It could be the number of data entry records completed, outbound telephone calls made, how many boxes moved, or how many widgets manufactured. Let’s say an employee is expected to do 120 units in an eight hour day. That’s 15 units an hour. That’s 1 unit every four minutes. Those are the numbers. If the employee is only doing 80 units in a day, then his productivity is too low. In effect, he is working too slowly. So the manager, metrics in hand, keeps having the same conversation over and over again with the employee: “Your numbers are short of the goal. You have to hit 120 units a day. That’s 15 units an hour. That’s 1 unit every four minutes.” And the employee says, “Yes, I know. I’m trying.” Until the next week when they have the same conversation again. This is what I call “staring at the numbers together.” It’s as if some managers are hoping they can will the numbers to go up by staring hard enough. At this point, most employees are thinking, “I would like to increase the numbers too. What I need to know is HOW to increase the numbers.”

   Metrics are great. But they are only step one in performance management. Staring at the numbers would be like a sports coach running down the field alongside a runner saying “run faster, run faster.” The runner is already trying to run faster. What the runner needs to hear from the coach is how to run faster, in the form of good course-correcting feedback: “Pick your knees up. Push off hard. Reach with your stride. Pull your shoulders back. Tuck your chin. Pull your elbows in.” And the runner thinks, “Ah ha! That’s HOW to run faster. Now that helps me.”

   You are the performance coach. The metrics are only valuable if you use them every step of the way to develop good course-correcting feedback for your employees. You need to be able to coach your employees on how to get faster.

   Take a very deliberate approach to helping her speed up. In your regular one-on-ones, focus on the goal of starting to speed up, slowly but surely.

   Spend some time with this employee and together conduct a time/motion study (described below) of each task in question. Take it one task at a time, and for each:
 
     1. Watch the employee do the task multiple times. Break each task into its component steps; and break each step into a series of concrete actions. Then time the whole thing: Time each concrete action making up each step making up the whole task.

     2. Figure out: How long should the task take? Step by step; concrete action by concrete action. Create a time-budget for each task; for each step; for each concrete action.

     3. Do a micro-gap analysis: Identify the micro-gaps between the time budget and the employee’s actual time step by step; concrete action by concrete action. In these micro-gaps lie the potential opportunities to speed up.

     4. Choose one concrete action at a time to “accelerate” and take it slowly. What if the employee could speed up just one concrete action per week? Close the micro-gaps one by one. By going one-concrete action at time, you will minimize the chances of increased mistakes in the effort to “speed up.”

   Once you’ve increased the speed of one task, move on to the next task. Every step of the way remember to monitor the quality of this person’s work to make sure it doesn’t dip and acknowledge the continued high-quality as her pace speeds up, slowly but surely.
 
   Quality-focused employees are often very gratifying to coach on speeding up because they are earnest, detail-oriented, and know how to work on “getting better” at something. You just have to get them focusing their attention on the details of “going faster.”

   Beware though: Sometimes what looks like a great attention to detail is actually some kind of obsessive/compulsive behavior. The triple-checking does not add anything other than satisfying the employee. You already know my answer is that your employee’s obsessive/compulsive disorder is none of your business. However, if you have an employee who is working too slowly because he is—-repeatedly—- doing unnecessary tasks or—-repeatedly—- building unnecessary steps into tasks, then resolving that problem definitely is your business.

   One of the beauties of doing a time/motion study of every task, responsibility and project is that it gives you an opportunity to drill down and see not just what your employees are doing, but exactly how they are doing it. You learn so much as a manager about the employee. You learn so much about the work. And in nearly every case, you will probably find at least a few surprises in the details. Just as some employees work slowly because they are so careful to get everything right, there are plenty of employees who work slowly because the way they are doing it is all wrong, a little bit wrong, or somewhere in between.

   When it comes to helping an employee “speed up,” here are the surprises you should be looking for in your time/motion studies:

     - Is the employee doing it wrong? Look at the employee’s every action in the process and check it against the very best practices, action by action. Do a micro-gap analysis. Start coaching to fill the gaps.

     - Is the employee doing unnecessary tasks? Start coaching to stop doing those unnecessary tasks regardless of what itch they might scratch.

     - Is the employee building in unnecessary steps in any tasks? (I call these detours.) If so, streamline the process, then start coaching others on how to adopt the streamlined process.

     - Is the employee encountering any recurring obstacles that have not been taken into account? If so can the obstacles be removed? Or can a ready-made solution be provided to deal with the obstacles when they occur? Start coaching on using those ready-made solutions when the obstacles come up.

   When you take the time to study exactly how an employee is doing a task, responsibility, or project, there are only three ways it can go:

     1. You might be surprised to find that carefully following the best practices step by step takes longer than you thought.

     2. You might find the employee’s more time-consuming approach is so good you deem her approach to be the new set of best practices, even if they do take a little bit longer than the old ones.

     3. In any case, you will probably identify some very specific opportunities to help this employee improve—- and probably speed up. In your regular one-on-ones, start working on those specific goals, one task at a time: Step by step; concrete action by concrete action.

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