How to assess performance and get results
During my 15+ years in the high tech management world I must have written a stack of performance reviews that was 3 feet high. At one point I remember plopping down a stack of reviews that was 2.5 inches tall on my manager’s desk for his signatures. So I think I know something about performance assessments. Since you are reading this, I assume you want someone’s take on the mechanics of how things should be done in the “real” world, and not a dry primer on how things are done in theory. Good. I’ll start at the beginning.
“Tell me how you are going to measure me, and I’ll tell you how I’m going to behave” - Eliyahu Goldratt
The job description
If you want high performance from your employees, you must tell them what is expected of them. The basic idea is that your employee’s job is to make you look good to your supervisor(s). Unfortunately, you can’t actually write this on any formal document because HR will call you into a conference room, pin you to the floor and spoon hot sauce onto your eyeballs. So you tell your employees this verbally and explain that you’re just joking. But it conveys the point that the employee, should s/he ever be confused about how to behave, is expected to align their efforts to your supervisors priorities. This is why you will hold periodic staff meetings with your employees and blabber about the scuttlebutt going around at the next higher management level. At least, that’s what your employees think. What you are actually doing is communicating to them what your supervisor thinks is important. So if the Big Cheese mentions in her staff meeting something about always seeing too many people milling around the water cooler, you bring it up – half jokingly – in your staff meeting and your people bring it up in their staff meetings. Soon Mora Hydrate, one of your first level employees, knows that she needs to get a drink and get back to work next time she’s thirsty.
Of course you still need to write something about the job expectations for your employees for a couple of reasons. First, you need a yardstick to measure their performance so you have something to beat them over the head with whilst demanding improvements. Second, your reports need to have something to proudly point to and say, “See, I’m in charge of the damn coffee machine!” But it needs to be at an appropriate level for the employee. You can mutter to an experienced employee that they’re in charge of lawn clippings, they’ll understand what you mean, they’ll figure out how to measure their performance and even write their own job description and set goals. But then there’s the laziest employee imaginable, William deSlacker, who will use your written job description to justify doing a lousy job because it makes his life easier.
What is desired: William maintains the copy machine himself using the manufacturers recommended procedures and rarely does anyone complain about the copier being down.
What you wrote for a job description: “William is responsible for maintaining the copy machine.”
What actually happens: William puts a sign on the copy machine whenever it’s broken that says “Do not use!” Then he calls around town to schedule an emergency visit by a qualified repair person. The office is in an uproar.
Second try: “William is responsible for performing all the manufacturers recommended maintenance and all repair work required to keep the copy machine in working order.”
What actually happens: William complains that people are breaking the copier because they aren’t using it correctly so he moves the copier to his office and limits the use of the copier to certain people who must obtain certification from him. Returning to your office after lunch, you find a “love note” from your boss stuck on the middle of your computer screen. “See me. Now.”
Third try: “William is responsible for ensuring the copier is available for use by all office personnel by performing maintenance and repair of the machine as needed.”
What actually happens: William puts a note on the copier table everyday at 3 pm, “Down for scheduled maintenance”, and takes the copier to his desk to clean out the machine with iso-propyl alcohol for two hours and run diagnostics afterwards. You find the copier on your ergo chair when you arrive the next day. There is an unhappy face drawn on it using a dry-erase marker and a voice mail from your boss waiting for you.
Fourth try: “William is responsible for ensuring that office personnel productivity is not negatively impacted by copier downtime by performing maintenance and repair of the machine as needed in a safe and cost effective manner.”
What actually happens: William, newly aware that office personnel complaints can ding his performance, is somewhat boxed in and is not happy. He complains that you haven’t told him what good performance is. Is it less than 3 complaints per month? Or zero? This is intolerable! You explain to him that you will evaluate each complaint to determine if it was preventable, that continuous improvement is ALWAYS expected, and that he needs to clean off the copier’s unhappy face.
Note that you don’t have to invent and maintain a new monitoring routine; the data comes to you without effort on your part. It is in this manner that you can achieve the prime directive for supervisors in stable organizations that lack the intrinsic motivational driver that comes from fighting just to survive: to keep your reports in a state of constant paranoia about whether their performance is adequate or not. As an added bonus, it relieves you of the difficult task of specifying what level of performance is good and what is bad.
Like all managers, you know good and bad performance when you see it, just don’t ask for the definition beforehand because that would be handing out ammo to the enemy. Too much detail
can will be used against you in perverse ways.
What you wrote: ”William is responsible for ensuring that office personnel productivity is not negatively impacted by copier downtime by performing maintenance and repair of the machine as determined by the manufacturers schedule in a safe and cost effective manner.”
What actually happens: William follows the instructions of the manufacturer to the letter. The manufacturers maintenance schedule is overly aggressive in order to blame all customer problems on inadequate maintenance. So William constantly has the copier in the shop, cleaning it with benzene, because he’s following the manufacturers schedule and methodology. EXACTLY. When you complain that you’re being yelled at in your bosses staff meeting, his defense is that he’s just doing his job as you defined it. As your left eyelid begins to tick involuntarily, he points out that he doesn’t think office productivity is suffering and since you aren’t actually measuring it, what are you gonna do?
So always define a job based on the expected outcome, not the process, unless there is a specific process that actually is the job. Make sure there is someway you can measure performance, even if you don’t have a hard target. And don’t invent a new monitoring process if it requires effort from you. Your job is to get the monkeys off your back and onto your reports, not to add new ones. If a new data collection process is needed to monitor performance, assign the task to someone else. If you do have hard performance targets, like customer returns, or reliability failures, or water usage, etc, well, that’s great.
“He uses the carrot and stick approach with employees. First he beats them with a stick. Then he beat them with a carrot.” – Name withheld by request
Assessing the relative performance of employees
You probably have to (or you should) attend a meeting where you and your manager peers have to pool all of your employees and order them by their value to the organization. Once this is done, their salaries are listed alongside the names. This ordered list is used to prevent as well as detect anomalies, like the top person being underpaid relative to their peers, all the employees of a certain manager are underpaid, or one employee’s performance is dropping relative to their peers, or whatever. Sounds pretty straight forward – until you actually try to do it. Who should go at the top of the list: the person who was lucky to be in a position to make a critical contribution to the organization’s success, or the person who has critical expertise without which the organization would collapse, or the guy who didn’t do much but he saved the organization that one time when he pulled an all-nighter to complete a critical project?
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Terry and George are junior engineers with similar experience levels. Terry was responsible for reducing the number of nose hairs contaminating the final product, and George was responsible for finding ways to reduce the amount of gold consumed in the manufacturing process. Terry reduced the number of hairs from 43 to 11 ppm, well within the legally allowed limit and better than your competitors, although it will cost the organization roughly $1 million a year in added inspections. But it makes hair related recalls of product, which can cost millions, less likely than they were before. On the other hand, George found a way to save $40 million in gold costs per quarter. George’s supervisor thinks George should be ranked higher than Terry because George is saving the organization over $100 million a year, almost guaranteeing everyone a fat bonus, whereas Terry’s contribution might save the company from an embarrassment someday but will likely have little or even negative impact on the firm’s revenue going forward. Who should be ranked higher?
Solution: There’s no way to tell from the information I’ve given. And I swear, sometimes managers will present exactly this kind of information and ask the group to agree. So, how do you figure this out? There are two things I need to know: what was the level of sophistication required/used to approach the problem, and how well did the employee perform given the constraints on them. George’s money savings doesn’t even factor into it. Sorry George.
Here’s my thought process: Imagine that, instead of a junior engineer, you assigned someone who had the skills to be a top contributor on today’s rank list to the employee’s task. Contrast how this imaginary top contributor might have approached the problem with how it was actually done. It’s the magnitude of the sum of these performance/methodology deltas that I use to determine how far down the rank list each individual belongs as a first pass. So I want to know if Terry set up an efficient system to monitor where nose hairs were contaminating the manufacturing process, recruit the best people to work with him, determine possible root causes using a process to expand the search space for non obvious causes, systematically address the possibilities, leave in place a monitoring system, negotiate with suppliers to do their own final inspections, document his findings, etc? Does his solution ensure that the problem doesn’t reappear in the future after all the personnel familiar with the issue are gone? What level of coaching was required by the supervisor – minimal or constant hand holding? Did he seek out the advice of the appropriate experts? Sometimes an obvious solution is apparent after only a little investigation – a top contributor would put in a quick fix and move on to another task. A lower level contributor might miss an easy solution and burn lots of calories unnecessarily.
If you come up with a list of attributes your imaginary top contributor might have beforehand, either by yourself or with your staff, things will go a lot smoother. One issue that is sure to come up is how do you determine the magnitude of each delta? I go by how long it will reasonably take to correct the deficiency, not by the effect of the delta on the contribution. If this doesn’t make sense to you, imagine you are have spent two years developing a product and right before introduction the lawyers, whom no one has ever heard from, get wind of it and nix it because of some pending litigation. The only correction you have to make for your next project is to add legal to the list of possible stakeholders to check with early on in the project. Meanwhile, your peers have completed their wimpy projects unopposed by legal and are getting promotions, but you get a cost of living raise. Does this make sense?
Many senior contributors perform services for their organizations that aren’t directly related to their responsibilities. They might be expected to perform at a high level on a range of different tasks. Is Terry a hair defect specialist, with few skills outside his bailiwick? Do others seek out his wide range of expertise and advice and does he spend time coaching them? Does he role model your organizations values?
Typically, you shouldn’t rely on the supervisor’s opinion of their employee’s skill level. Supers are biased, normally for the employee, although sometimes not. Sometimes an employee’s poor performance reflects poorly on the manager. Think of an employee who basically didn’t do anything for six months and the supervisor never suggests to them that this might be a problem prior to formal performance appraisal time. So to ascertain where each employee ranks you will have to ask to-the-point questions to the supervisor as if cross-examining a witness for the defense. In other words, don’t ask for the supervisors opinion of the level of supervision required by an employee, ask them how much supervision the employee actually received.
The second factor to consider is what cards the contributor was dealt. Joe, a senior contributor, has his area of responsibility running smoothly due to his efforts over the past few years. His peers have been working overtime attacking and resolving complex problems in their areas. Do you ding Joe for not working as hard as the others? Jess just moved into her position a year ago. Her experience is in a much different area and she is still learning the ropes. Before she was on the top of the contribution list. This year her contributions are much lower. Allen has had a series of serious medical issues over the past year. His contributions were weak. For all the above situations, my experience is that you should probably neither ding them nor reward them. Place them at roughly the same level that they were at in the past. The issues here are not addressed by using pay to motivate performance. Joe needs to given more responsibility, Jess needs a reasonable time frame to ramp up, and Allen may need to be moved from his position to “Special Projects” where the workload can vary with his health until his issues work themselves out.
What about the salaried guy who chooses to work 16 hours a day including weekends? (I personally shared a cubicle with someone who worked from 9 am until 1 am everyday). In general, I’d say that if someone has desirable skills or attributes beyond what you would expect from your imaginary top contributor, then give them a positive delta which can be used to offset their negative deltas. In this particular case, I’d give a positive delta if their output was outstanding, and I’d make sure that this person was fed more responsibilities and that they received some coaching on any skills they needed in order to advance. As much as I hate to admit it, the fastest way to advance up the corporate ladder is to have a high skill level combined with massive hours.
Finally, when it comes time to deal with poor performance issues, like deciding to give a zero raise or a demotion, be aware that fatigue makes decisions more harsh. Take a break first.
“Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright” - Ben Franklin
The hard parts are over. You’ve given your employee a job description and you’ve given them feedback as far as roughly where they stand performance wise. Now you need to point them to areas they need to work on in order to advance up the ordered list and to help them set goals for the upcoming year. The areas to work on are easy – they are the deltas we discussed earlier. Just present them to the employee as opportunities to improve, not as dings used against them.
Now, with respect to goals, understand that intrinsic goals are better than extrinsic ones. In other words, I’m likely to be more motivated to do something if I’m excited about doing it in the first place than if my boss tells me I have to do it. Hell, every 5 year old knows this. Best case, you find out what your employee wants to work on and you combine it with the organization’s business requirements and, viola, goal identified! This is easier than it sounds because organization needs are almost always weighted higher. You need Sally to ramp up marketing efforts for a new product, and she wants to lead a task force. Fine. Combine the two. A task force to ramp up marketing efforts is hers.
Now your employee skips down the hall whistling to herself, expecting to lead a life of work related fulfillment, right? Nope. You need to add nine more items to her number one priority list. Okay, I’m half joking. But having an excess of priorities is a good thing: it ensures alignment with your priorities, it may reduce a subtle form of discrimination where certain classes of people (women, for example) aren’t pushed as hard as others, and nothing is more inefficient than having an employee without enough to do.
Is having too many top priorities abusive? Hey, people volunteer for special forces school in the military, where they are pushed until they puke and beg for more. Just remember that they are closely monitored by the instructors and they feel that there’s something in it for them – a deeply intrinsic reward. Your employees will never achieve the level of motivation of special forces trainees – just do what you can to weave as much intrinsic reward into each person’s priorities and watch for and address stress issues immediately.