Managing Employee Performance Variability

In case you missed it, here’s an re-post of my article that appeared this week in Plastics Technology as well as other publications in the Gardner Business Media family.

Less than a year after Steve Jobs’ exit, the iPhone 5 rolled out with a defective maps application. Apple stumbled. The map fiasco wasn’t a technical problem, process breakdown or the result of a natural disaster. Simply, it was an error in human judgment.

There’s No Escape from Natural Cycles

Companies experience numerous life cycles over the duration of their existence. The manager’s job is to propel the company upward in the cycle (ascent) while preventing the early onset of decay (descent).

Declines in organizational performance can be precipitated by poor quality, no sales, product obsolescence, poor decision making, cost overruns, inefficiencies and/or a combination of these factors; but, invariably, the root cause is almost always people. The probability and frequency of performance failures increase with head count. Managers in big companies likely spend more time and energy forestalling descent and too little time fueling ascent.

Murphy’s Law

Entropy is “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.” Innovation, risk taking and vision are critical for success, but managers who are exceptionally proficient at managing variability and building fire walls that inhibit entropy thrive. We non-scientists call this “Murphy’s Law.” Well, Murphy only shows up where’s he’s invited.

While seldom malicious, entropy is insidious. It starts with an unmotivated or untrained employee; a salesman who can’t ask for the order or hold margin; a trusted associate who bottlenecks workflow and succumbs to time pressure; a key manager who avoids or takes too long to make important decisions or who takes on too much work because he/she can’t or won’t delegate. It can be the likeable supervisor who refuses to enforce work rules on the shop floor to avoid confrontation.

Is this a too negative view of how things work? How did you spend your time and energy last week? Were you able to concentrate most of it making forward progress or just kept from sliding back? Our experience tells us that managers who spend most of their time backfilling and fixing are very likely hiring the wrong people and/or managing people the wrong way because they do not have all the data they need to recruit, select and manage differently.

The Flip Side of Variability: Predictability

Metals are measured, weighed and assayed. Machines are dialed-in. Shopfloor environmental factors are finely controlled. Much applied science is used to ensure predictable performance of materials and machines; thus, managers can reliably measure their working properties and predict how they will perform under a given set of conditions.

People bring differing and changing levels of intelligence, education, culture, maturity, values, language skills, physical abilities and attitudes to the job. That people are not as predictable as materials and machinery is an understatement. Managing people optimally requires wisdom, patience and goodwill, and, applied science.

Predictive Index® (PI®) is the applied science thousands of managers use to reliably predict how a person will act and react in the work environment, uncovering if each person is technically or socially oriented; has a sense of urgency or operates in a methodical mode; and is either strategic or tactical; and much more.

Using the Performance Requirements Options (PRO) form, managers can “spec out” a job scientifically to reveal the behaviors it demands before starting a candidate search. Knowing how the job requires the person to behave using the PRO and how a person works using the PI Organization Survey, managers can make a better match of the two. It lets managers task people to do work that meets their needs and that drives out unwanted variability.

PI provides an informed glimpse into the future so managers can make informed decisions about operators, managers and sales people. For 57 years, managers have used PI to accelerate growth and as a fire wall/early warning system to provide lift and prevent performance degradation in the talent management pieces of their enterprises.