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Management Challenge: When you have an employee who needs to improve quality

by Bruce TulganJune 2016

   Quality means “negative error rate per labor unit” (plus “creativity” one could argue). For now let’s focus just on quality in terms of error rate. To determine an employee’s error rate, you need to ask: How many errors does an employee make in a defined unit of labor? (A unit of labor might be a particular amount of time; or a particular quantity of results; or a number of specified concrete actions.)

   The first solution to consider when it comes to employees with high error rates is retraining. Employees often find themselves charged with tasks and responsibilities for which they’ve received little or no training. They haven’t been given the information to master or the techniques to practice, sufficient to develop the basic knowledge and skill to do the work. If there is a high concentration of employees with high error rates, there is a good chance the training was insufficient. Indeed, even if the training was great, ask yourself, “Can anyone really get really good at anything after just one class?” Retraining will improve just about anybody’s performance, at least for a while, simply as a result of refreshing and refocusing, increasing awareness and mindfulness. Not to mention some of those basic bits of knowledge and skill necessary to do the job. Plus retraining sends a message that “doing it right” really matters.

   Maybe the training was so good the first time, you don’t need to repeat it. Or maybe you don’t have the resources to retrain employees formally in a classroom. But you can have check-lists and your regular ongoing one-on-one dialogue. The continuous reminders and reinforcement of performance coaching is a lot like regular continuous retraining.

   Baffling to some managers is the employee who obviously knows exactly what she is doing and still makes lots of mistakes. She knows the task by heart. She’s done it a zillion times. Often this is an employee who is so confident in her competence that she moves through the steps of each task almost automatically, thinking she could do it “in her sleep.” So she sometimes does. And that’s when the errors occur.

   You need that employee to wake up: Keep a bright light on everything that employee does. Scrutiny alone can have a huge impact on an employee’s attention to detail: If I know someone is keeping a close eye on my performance, I am likely to keep a closer eye on it myself.

   Scrutiny, though, is only step one. Don’t get stuck in another version of “staring at the numbers together”: Metrics in hand, show the employee her error rate and tell her explicitly, “Too many errors.” If the employee says, “Yes, I know. I’m trying,” and then next week you have the same conversation, then the wake-up call alone isn’t doing the trick. In that case, you need to use the metrics to develop good course-correcting feedback to help the employee figure out how to make fewer errors.

   The answer is almost always, “Slow down and think about what you are doing.” The metrics should help you zero in on exactly where and when this particular employee needs to slow down and think, at least for now. That may turn out to be a moving target. That’s ok – that’s the whole point of metrics and coaching.

   As you might have noticed, it’s often the speed-demons who make the most mistakes. This is especially problematic in positions where the basis for performance evaluation and rewards is disproportionately weighted to productivity measures rather than quality. Indeed, quality is almost always harder to monitor and measure than productivity. Tracking quality requires regular auditing of work product, close attention to the details, and plenty of subjective judgment calls.

   Quality assurance slows things down because slowing things down is how to assure quality. It’s a business judgment you have to make – and a delicate balance for you and your direct-reports. They need your constant guidance and direction striking that balance: “Work on quality this week. Speed next week. Quality again the week after.”

   Let’s say this week you are going to work on quality. In your regular one-on-one dialogue, start focusing on the goal of eliminating recurring errors, one by one:

     Spend some time with this employee and together conduct an audit of her work product. Get inside the metrics – paying very close attention to the details.

     Take it one task at a time: Review the employee’s work in progress and completed work product. Watch the employee do the task in question multiple times. Is the employee following a checklist?

     Look at the employee’s every concrete action in the process: Check it against the best practices; step by step; concrete action by concrete action. Do a micro-gap analysis. Start coaching to fill the gaps. If needed, take each item on the checklist and break it down into smaller pieces so there is a mini-checklist for each item.

   Every step of the way, make sure the employee is actually using the checklists. Tell the employee: “Mark a check next to each item as completed on the mini-checklist within each item on the checklist.” You might even encourage the employee to make notes in the margins of the checklists. Then you can use those notes and checklists as a tool to guide your coaching conversations.

   If the employee appears to be following best practices, start looking for pitfalls: Zero in on exactly where and when the most frequent mistakes are occurring. Try to figure out exactly what’s going wrong.

   Choose one concrete action at a time to “make error free” and take it slowly. What if the employee could eliminate just one recurring error per week?

   Once you’ve increased the quality of one task, move on to the next task. And so on.

   Every step of the way remember to monitor the productivity of this person’s work to make sure it doesn’t dip and acknowledge her continued high-speed, even as her pace slows down just enough to dot her “I”s and cross her “t”s on that checklist.

   The fact that checklists slow a person down is one of the best reasons to use them when improving quality. But checklists only work if they are used. When the checklist becomes so familiar that it seems an automatic drill, it can lose its effectiveness as a quality control. Then you need to use your strong coaching voice to keep the checklist alive and meaningful. Change it up a little: Have people start going through each checklist twice, “double-checking.” When that becomes passé, maybe you need a week of “triple-checking.” That’s because checklists are not just step-by-step instructions, but also tools of mindfulness.

   My lifelong mentor and Karate teacher Master Frank Gorman taught me this little exercise about mindfulness. He’d say: “Write your name.” Then he’d say: “OK. Now write your name, but leave out every other letter.” Then he’d say: “I cut out half your work. Why did it take you twice as long?” The answer of course is mindfulness. You have to slow down and think about what you are doing.

   If you want to slow people down and get them to think about what they are doing, you need to change the process up a little now and then. Keep challenging them to keep it interesting: Focus on speed one week. Quality the next. Focus on removing errors from one task this week. Another task the next week.

   Everybody gets sloppy once in a while. That’s why you need to keep your people awake and mindful and focused on the details every step of the way. One person at a time, one day at a time.

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