The Silver Bullet for Performance Problems Doesn’t Exist

Oh but if it did, life for a supervisor would be easier, right? Let’s face it, “people” problems are a big deal for management. Working with humans does present its challenges, such as miscommunications between staff, data entry errors, or rushing verification checks. Sometimes, the task at hand is so repetitive that the result is assumed to be okay and gets “a pass”.  Add constant interruptions to the list and it becomes even harder not to get distracted and lose focus or attention to the detail.

Actual behavior vs. performing as expected

In their book, Performance Consulting: Moving Beyond Training, Dana Gaines Robinson and James C. Robinson describe performance as what the performer should be able to do. A performance problem occurs when the actual behavior does not meet expectation (as in should have been able to do).   Why don’t employees perform as expected? Root cause analysis helps problem solvers and investigators uncover a myriad of possible reasons.   For Life Sciences companies, correcting mistakes and preventing them from occurring again is at the heart of CAPA systems (Corrective Actions Preventive Actions).

A closer look at performance gaps

Dana and James Robinson conducted research regarding performer actions and sorted their results into three categories of obstacles:

  • Conditions of performers
  • Conditions of the immediate managers
  • Conditions of the organization

A checklist for common Performance Causes  – scroll down for the Tool.

But, weren’t they trained and qualified?

Hopefully, employees are trained using an approved OJT (On the Job Training) Methodology in which they are shown how to execute the task and then given opportunities to practice multiple times to become proficient. During these sessions, they are coached by Qualified Trainers and given feedback on what’s right (as expected) and given specific instructions to correct what’s not right with suggestions for tweaking their performance so that their final performance demonstration is on par with their peer group. At the conclusion of the qualification event, employees must accept that they now own their deviations (mistakes) from this point forward. So what gets in the way of performing “as they should” or in compliance speak – according to the procedure?

Is it a lack of knowledge, skill or is it something else?

The Robinson’s explain that performance is more than the training event. It’s combination of the overall learning experience and the workplace environment that yields performance results. Breaking that down into a formula per se, they suggest the following: learning experience x workplace environment = performance results.

The root cause investigation will include a review of training and the qualification event as well as a discussion with the performer.

  • Is it a lack of frequency; not a task often performed?
  • Is it a lack of feedback or delayed feedback in which the deviation occurred without their awareness?
  • Is it task interference?

The work environment includes organizational systems and business unit processes that together enable the performer to produce the outcomes as “expected”.   These workplace factors don’t always work in perfect harmony resulting in obstacles that get in the way of “expected” performance:

  • Lack of authority – unclear roles, confusing responsibilities?
  • Lack of time – schedule conflicts; multi-tasking faux pas?
  • Lack of tools – reduced budgets?
  • Lack of poorly stored equipment/tools – lost time searching?

Isn’t it just human nature?

Once the root cause investigation takes on a human element attention, it’s easy to focus on the performer and stop there.   If it’s the first time for the performer or first instance related to the task, it’s tempting to label the event as an isolated incident. But when it comes back around again, it becomes apparent there was a “failure to conduct an in-depth investigation” to correct and prevent. Not surprisingly, a push back of “Operator Error as Root Cause” has forced organizations to look deeper into the root causes involving Humans.

Who’s human nature?

Recall that one of the categories of the researched obstacles was “conditions of the immediate managers”. This makes managers uncomfortable. With so much on their plates, managing a people performance problem is not what they want to see. A silver bullet like a re-training event is a nice activity that gets a big red check mark on their to-do list. However, Robert Mager and Peter Pipe, in their book, Analyzing Performance Problems, provide insights to managing direct reports that may lead to unintended consequences. A brief list can be found here – scroll to Tool: Performance Causes.  (It’s not always the performer’s fault.)

It takes all three to correct a performance problem

soln-people-performance-problemThe third category of researched obstacles clustered around “conditions of the organization”.  I’ve already discussed task interference above. To suggest that organizations are setting up their employees to fail is pushing it just a bit too far.   So I won’t go there, but it is painful for some leaders to come to terms with the implication. In order to prevent issues from reoccurring, an examination of the incidents and quite possibly a restructuring of systems have to occur, because automatic re-training is not the only solution to a “people performance problem”. –VB

Robinson DG, Robinson JC. Performance Consulting: Moving beyond training. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler; 1995.

Mager R, Pipe P. Analyzing performance problems. Belmont: Lake Publishing; 1984.

If training isn’t the answer, what is the right fix?

In the blog, Isn’t this still training?, I shared some thoughts on closing performance gaps with the right solutions.  Ideally, the right solution is one that closes the performance gap AND makes a worthy impact on business objectives.

So, what is worthy performance?

Thomas Gilbert described it as engineering worthy performance in his groundbreaking book, Human Competence: engineering worthy performance.   It’s when the cost of doing the task is less than the value of the results generated.  When they are the same or greater, we have a performance gap.  See  eBook, “Triggering the Shift to Performance Improvement”.

HPI Solutions is like opening up Pandora’s Box

One component of the HPI methodology includes a Performance Analysis.  Performance Analysis recognizes that performance occurs within organizational systems.  Very often the recommended HPI solution(s) involves the integration of linkages outside of the initiating department but within those same “organizational and quality systems” in order to ensure sustainable performance improvement.  Otherwise, you have a fragment of the solution with high expectations for solving “the problem”.

This requires the cooperation of others.  How solid are these relationships?  Would a request to fix someone else’s system go over well?   Or would you be accused of starting a turf battle?  HPI projects have the potential of opening up unsettling issues similar to Pandora’s Box.  Image, perception, pending promotions, can all be impacted by what the Performance Analysis reveals; including the fear of losing one’s job.  And yet, this very opportunity to engineer worthy performance is what makes these projects so valuable for impactful results.

When borrowing a best practice from another department can backfire

If having one department of qualified operators is good, then why not duplicate the best practice?  Hmm, sounds reasonable enough, right?  This is exactly what one manager thought after a department reorganization.  So, she set out to cut-n-paste curricula from manufacturing operators and use for her staff of technicians.  But after months of reminding, little progress was made towards completion of the “cross-training requirements”.  A performance cause analysis was conducted and revealed a few surprises.  In an effort to expedite the cross-training program and hit the ground running, decisions about what to include in the cross-training curriculum were done without the input of the technicians.

In the  HPIS C. impact story, “I’ve Been Re-org’d.  What’s in it for me?” learn more about those surprises and how this HPI Project was refocused on wellness and motivation as the right fix instead of completing borrowed training curricula.

Isn’t this just another way of saying training needs analysis?

No, the emphasis during a PA is on recognizing the drivers and barriers to performance first.   The method gathers multiple perspectives on the problem.   What’s included? Request  “Performance analysis: the lean approach to solving performance problems”.   – VB.

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Reframing a Training Request

Analyzing Performance Problems

The title of today’s post reminds me of the subtitle for R. Mager and P. Pipe’s book – “Or You Really Oughta Wanna”.  Yet, it is by far most the opportune time a Performance Consultant (PC) has to get a HPI (Human Performance Improvement) project going.  But a word of caution is in order.  Please don’t launch into a 15 minute dissertation on the HPI methodology if all they want is a training fix.

Say Yes and …

Never say no to a training request until you know more.  The key is to get more time.  You do this by conducting a performance cause analysis to determine the nature of the discrepancy.  Evidence can be collected from document review examples, deviations, audit observations and follow up “interviews”.   Even if a solution begins to form in your mind, stay on the HPI methodology path and let the data show you the proper answer.  It’s this data that grants a PC a little bit more time.

A Typical Training Request

Begins with an assumption that a lack of knowledge is somehow missing and that “training” is the right solution.  Next, the requestor launches into a list of “required content” and without taking a breath, asks when you can complete the classroom training!  Rather than attempting to explain when training is the right answer, stay calm and in your best professional tone use the following phrases:

  • Okay, have they been trained before?
  • What was that like?
  • I see.  So more of the “same” training will change the results? In what way?

If they continue to insist, then use my favorite one: Okay, but what will they be doing differently as a result of this training session? 

I Need Training for 800 Employees ASAP

A corporate auditor discovered a lack of training records for newly developed Job Aids during a Mock Inspection.  So, the easy fix would be to re-train everyone and then produce the records, right? Notice; however, that the solution is biased towards retraining without discovering why the training was missed in the first place. 

Reframing the request allowed the Performance Consultant to not only find the root cause but to provide both immediate resolution and long term prevention.  The PC never said no to the training request, only that they “wanted to provide the most effective training possible”.   The PC’s part was to expedite a Training Root Cause Analysis and solution recommendations as quickly as possible.  In the end, the HPI approach delivered the solution far quicker than the traditional training approach was originally planned for and the audit observation was closed before the due date!

 NOTE: A more detailed version of this case –“Just Get the Audit Observation Closed Already, Will You?” is now available.

Short Term Value vs. Bottom Line Impact

This situation presented a very real dilemma for the PC.  Provide short term value for the VP of Quality (Requestor) and satisfy the goal to close out the audit observation or find the real root cause to determine what the appropriate solution SHOULD be. In theory, there is no dilemma. The choice is obvious. But in practice, for organizations under intense pressure to take immediate action, short term value can be quite attractive. This is exactly where performance analysis provides a balanced approach.  Isn’t this what HPI is all about – impacting the bottom line? – VB

Recommended blog: “But isn’t this still training?”

Announcing the HPIS C. eBook for Trainers!  

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Analyses du jour: Isn’t it really all the same thing?

So there’s root cause analysis and gap analysis and now performance cause analysis?  Is there a difference? Do they use different tools?  It can be overwhelming to decipher through the jargon, no doubt!  I think it depends on which industry you come from and whether your focus is a regulatory / quality system point of view or performance consulting perspective.  To me, it doesn’t change the outcome.  I still want to know why the deviation occurred, how the mistake that was made and /or what allowed the discrepancy to happen.  Mix and matching the tools allows me to leverage the best techniques from all.

Why we love root cause analysis

For starters, it’s GMP and we get to document our compliance with CAPA requirements.  It allows us to use tools and feel confident that our “data doesn’t lie”.  This bodes well for our credibility with management.  And it provides the strategic connection between our training solution (as a corrective action) and site quality initiatives thus elevating the importance and quite possibly the priority for completing the corrective action on time.

Asking the right questions

Root cause analysis and problem solving steps dove tail nicely.  See sidebar below.  It requires us to slow down and ask questions methodically and sequentially.  More than one question is asked, for sure.  When you rush the process, it’s easy to grab what appears to be obvious.  And that’s one of the early mistakes that can be made with an over reliance on the tools.  The consequence?  Jumping to the wrong conclusion that automatic re-training or refresher training is the needed solution.  Done, checkmark.  On to the next problem that needs a root cause analysis. But when the problem repeats or returns with a more serious consequence, we question why the training did not transfer or we wonder what’s wrong with the employee – why is s/he not getting this yet?

Side Bar -Double Click to Enlarge.
Side Bar -Double Click to Enlarge.

No time to do it right, but time to do it twice!

Solving the problem quickly and rapidly closing the CAPA allows us to get back to our other pressing tasks.  Unfortunately, “band-aids” fall off.  The symptom was only covered up and temporarily put out of sight, but the original problem wasn’t solved.  So now, we must investigate again (spend more time) and dig a little deeper.  We have no time to do it right, but find the time to do it twice.  Madness!

Which tool to use?

My favorite human performance cause tool is the fish bone diagram, albeit the “ 5 Whys Technique” is a close second.  Both tools force you to dig a little deeper into the causes.  Yes, the end result often reveals something is amiss with “the training”, but is it man, machine, method or materials? Ah-hah, that is very different than repeat training on the procedure!  Alas, when we have asked enough right questions, we are led to the true cause(s).  That is the ultimate outcome I seek no matter what you call the process or which tool is used. -VB

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