Expect performance from your promises.
—Shakespeare, Henry VI, 1591
Performance improvement is based on a classic scientific model, that of medicine and the medical intervention. The model provides a useful introduction to the four major steps involved in any performance improvement process.
Diagnosis: "Any changes in your weight recently?"
The differential gap analysis
Prescription: "Here's a prescription."
A solution or intervention based, not on the surface symptoms of the problem, but on the real root cause of the problem
Administer Treatment: "Take two aspirin before going to bed."
The implementation or deployment of the intervention or solution
Checkup: "Call me in the morning."
Follow-on continuous evaluation and assessment
The origins of modern performance improvement and performance consulting go back to the early 1900s and Frederick Taylor, who invented process-centered management consulting (see Fastpaths 1987, Weisbord). The methodology went through numerous incarnations, including the twists and turns of scientific and humanistic management consulting, to emerge in the management consulting arms of the Big Five accounting firms. The movement continued to gain ground in the late 1990s when training departments and individual consultants started transforming themselves from tactically-oriented order takers into business performance consultants. The theoretical basis for the movement came from a variety of sources, including classic works in behaviorism, cognitivism, and organizational development.
Plato: "Socrates, what is performance improvement?"
Socrates: "Training and development—but with its eyes opened beyond the doors of the training room."
Plato: "And how do you practice it?"
Socrates: "The way I teach—by asking questions. There are four of them:
First, where do we want to be? This describes the future state of the organization.
Second, where are we now? This describes the current state.
Third, how do we get from here to there? Is it affordable and does it make good business sense?
Fourth, how will we know when we get there; how will we measure success?"
In performance consulting as in medicine, prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.
Here is the expanded model of Performance Improvement and Consulting:
Diagnose the Problem: The Seven Performance Factors
Analyze the business problem, comparing current with optimum performance, and identify the cause from among the following seven factors:
Expectations: Are there clear job descriptions and performance expectations for employees?
Consequences: Are employees being paid for desired results, or for something else? Are rewards and recognitions, incentives and motivation directed toward the desired result?
Support: Do employees have the necessary support and resources to do their job?
Feedback: Are employees receiving feedback on how they're doing? Are they being praised when they do perform well?
Processes: Are processes and hand-offs between departments efficient? Are these processes aligned with organizational goals?
Attitudes: What is the attitude of management toward the business problem—and toward the potential solution? Attitudes form perceptions—which in turn shape reality—in corporations.
Training: Are people properly trained? Do they have the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes to do their job?
(these seven factors are adapted from the works of Rummler, Skinner, Gilbert, and Mager.)
Just a few years ago, an ancient scroll called "The Surgical Papyrus" was unearthed in Egypt, which describes the steps necessary to carry out medical interventions. They are as follows:
Examine the symptoms
Diagnose the cause of the problem
Treat the malfunction
Note any lessons learned
The papyrus states that this same process is followed, whether one is treating "a fracture, a dislocation, or a sprain." Date of the original papyrus? Probably 3000 B.C.—5,000 years ago! Process interventions are a very ancient craft.
—Adapted from Frederick Kilgour,
The Evolution of the Book, 1998
Prescribe a Solution
Select a solution or intervention that is aligned with the business goals of the company. Create clear, measurable objectives for the solution. The more specific the solution and measure of success, the better chance it has of succeeding.
Administer the Treatment
Architect the solution. If training, build the course or the job aid, or set up the coaching procedures, etc. If not training, revise the salary structure, improve hiring procedures, or create a new business unit.
Check Up on the Results
This is the all-important, final step, which ensures the accountability of the project and its contribution to the economic health of the organization. It consists of periodic "performance checks" throughout the organization to validate that improvement is indeed occurring. If not, the transfer of training (Level 3 evaluation) processes should be revisited.
Performance improvement and consulting is high-level organizational troubleshooting, its aim being to effect measurable behavior change in an organization. It systematically diagnoses what's wrong with an organization, prescribes a solution, and carries out the implementation of that solution, to the ultimate end of improving bottom-line financial results. Its watchwords are organizational efficiency and effectiveness.
The concept of performance improvement is so broad-based that the literature on it is endless. The following Fastpaths section presents a mere sampling of the available literature.
When I hear the word "performance," to paraphrase a famous writer, I reach for my revolver. The word is loaded in every sense. Lifted from the worlds of sport and high finance, the word carries connotations of precision, power, and high impact. Think for a minute about the following examples:
Sports: Professional athletes' performance is measured in triple-doubles (basketball), sacks-per-game (football), and runs batted in (baseball). A Formula One race car hits peak performance at 15,000 RPMs.
Finance: Corporate performance is measured by P/E ratios, investment portfolios by ROI, and stock market performance by numbers on the Dow and the Nasdaq.
With its heritage of precision and continuous monitoring anchored in numbers, performance provides us a lot to live up to in the world of performance improvement.
—David H. Miles
Marvin Weisbord: Productive Workplaces. Weisbord, in a highly readable history of organizational development, touches on many aspects of performance improvement, covering theory as well as practice.
Geary Rummler (with Alan Brache): Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart. Superb study on methods of performance improvement and consulting. Highly recommended as one of the best books ever written on this topic. Rummler is a master.
H. Stolovitch and E. Keeps (eds.): Handbook of Human Performance Technology. An 800-page volume by various hands; for professionals.
John Noonan: Elevators: How to Move Training Up from the Basement. Good introduction for beginners moving training "up" to performance and ROI considerations.
Richard Swanson: Analysis for Improving Performance: Tools for Diagnosing Organizations and Documenting Workplace Expertise.
James and Dana Robinson: Performance Consulting: Moving Beyond Training. Good introduction to the field.
Dana and J. Robinson: Performance Consulting. A solid introduction to the field.
David Ripley and Peter Dean: Performance Improvement Pathfinders: Models for Organizational Learning. History of a dozen pioneers in the field.
Robert Mager and P. Pipe: Analyzing Performance Problems. The classic text on analyzing performance problems, recently updated.
Allison Rossett: First Things Fast: A Handbook for Performance Analysis. Quick read, clear introduction.
Judith Hale: The Performance Consultant's Fieldbook. Basic work by an expert in the field of performance evaluation.
Danny Langdon: Aligning Performance. Solid book on aligning performance across an organization.
Harold Stolovitch and E. Keeps: Telling Ain't Training. A book on how and why we learn, and how to make learning stick.
See also Behaviorism Cognitivism Human Performance Technology