Changing and Maintaining Desired Employee Performance

Process change professionals seek to improve the way an organization works.  In some cases, process practitioners focus on changing the flow of activities, or the equipment or the software used by employees.  In other cases the process practitioners favor automating specific activities and eliminating employees entirely.  And in still other cases the redesign team will seek to change how employees analyze problems or make decisions.  Or they seek to encourage employees to change the way they think about various situation, or to change the way they perform tasks. 

Changing employee performance is a very complex issue.  Two approaches stand out:  Communication and Performance Reinforcement. 

First, there is communication.  If employees don’t know what management wants them to do, they can’t do it.  Or, if they don’t believe its part of their job, they may be reluctant to do it.  So, changing employee performance begins with the clear enunciation of employee goals and then reiteration of those goals and the implications of them at appropriate intervals.

Second, there is performance reinforcement.  Behavior that is followed by positive consequences is more likely to be repeated.  Behavior that seems to have no consequences, or behavior that is followed by negative consequences, tends to occur less frequency.  If we want to increase the frequency of specific employee behaviors, we need to assure that positive consequences follow.  This is why companies give bonuses to managers who achieve profit goals, and to salespeople who achieve their sales quotas.

When you think of a typical business process improvement effort, there are, in essence, two phases.  There is the phase in which a process redesign team examines the existing process and decides how it might be improved, and then there is the phase in which employees actually perform the new process (See Figure 1.)

It is during the first phase – during the actual redesign project – that classic change management is applied.  In essence, as each step of the redesign project is considered, there are issues that are contentious and that need to be addressed.  At meetings with employees and managers, those on the project team need to communicate their intentions, and identify where resistance is likely to come from.  Then, potential resistance needs to be addressed.  Most change management approaches emphasizing identifying and selling the advantages of change to those who are otherwise are likely to resist change.

It is also during the first phase that a process redesign team might identify existing problems with employee performance.  If one identifies problems with employee performance, of course, there might be several causes.  One cause, for example, might be that the employee doesn’t know what he or she is to do, or lacks the skill to perform the task.  Another cause might be that the work environment lacks the proper tools, or that the employee is told to do something that conflicts with trying to do the performance we are concerned with.  The employee may not know that there are any unfavorable consequences if he or she does one thing rather than another.

Fig 1Figure 1.  Two phases in a process improvement effort.

The process redesign team needs to carefully analyze any defective employee performance to determine the cause of the defective performance.  Assuming, however, that the defective performance results from a defective attitude, or from a belief that correct performance doesn’t make any difference, then the process redesign team should recommend that the day-to-day process execution environment should be changed in order to, first, change the employee’s attitude, and then to reinforce the desired performance.

It is during the second phase, when employees are working to implement the process, that change actually takes place.  Here, and subsequently, the employees either manifest the new attitudes and behaviors, or they don’t.  And here is where managers or supervisors play such a vital role.  They communicate expectations, reinforce verbal statements of new attitudes, monitor for new behaviors and then reinforce, with words, or with a variety of more concrete consequences, the new behaviors as employees manifest the desired new performance.

Analyzing Human Performance Problems

Returning to the first phase, when a redesign team analyzes the old process, we need techniques to assure that we identify and describe human performance problems.  Many process practitioners seem to think that they can adequately describe a business process by simply defining the activities that the employees undertake when they execute a process.  Indeed, this is what we typically picture on a BPMN diagram, like the one shown in Figure 2.

 Fig 2

Figure 2.  A BPMN diagram of a simple process.

If considered more broadly, however, the BPMN diagram shows more than a flow of activities and how those activities interact with customer activities.  The swimlanes are designed to show who manages the various processes.  We often abbreviate the labels on the swimlanes and list units, like Sales or Order Entry, but if we think about them properly, we understand that the label on the lane suggest who is accountable for accomplishing the activity.  And by “accountable,” in most cases we refer to a supervisor or manager who oversees the activities within the lane.  (We might refer to the employee if we were looking at an organization that had really delegated responsibility to the specific employees or to an employee team.)  Thus, if we look at Figure 2, we might more clearly label the swimlanes:  Sales supervisor, Order Entry supervisor, etc.

If we expand our view of what goes on in the “Order Entry” swimlane, we now get a diagram like the one shown in Figure 3.  This diagram shows that any given process, in practice, has both a work subprocess, performed by employees, and a management subprocess that is executed by a supervisor or manager.  In trying to understand the problems we might encounter in a given process, this is a necessary distinction because several types of possible problems arise because of things that the process supervisor does or does not do.

Fig 3

Figure 3.  A process has both a work subprocess and a management subprocess.

As you can see with a glance at Figure 3, process problems resulting from a lack of adequate staff or available tools, unclear goals, and poor performance are commonly the fault of the process supervisor rather than a defect on the part of employees who are assigned to the activity in question.   The process guru, Geary Rummler, who paid a lot of attention to this type of issue, estimated that well over half of all human performance issues he encountered in his years of process redesign work were the result of defective managerial practices rather than the fault of employees, as such. 

This is not the place to go into a comprehensive approach to the analysis of human performance problems.  Our focus here is on how we can change attitudes and how we can initiate and maintain new employee performance.  The key to changing existing attitudes and behaviors of employees is two fold.  First, the supervisor or other managers need to enunciate the new attitudes, tying those attitudes to specific employee performance, and then reinforcing the new performance whenever it occurs.  In some cases reinforcement might simply involve acknowledgement that the employee performed as desired.  In other cases it might involves talking about the performance, arranging rewarding consequences, or even arranging monetary incentives.

A major hotel chain, in an effort to encourage their employees to be more welcoming, urged employees to always say “Hello” to guests when they met, had supervisors track these interactions whenever they could, and provided incentives for the employees who did it most consistently.  The program quickly resulted in employees saying “Hello” and maintained the behavior as long as supervisors were consistent in noting and rewarding the behavior.  It ultimately become part of the hotel’s culture – everyone remarked on the fact that the employees always said “Hello” to guests, and employees began to pride themselves on it.

Just as every process redesign project ought to consider whether activities need to be performed, or not, how things flow from one activity to another, and whether or not a given activity might be automated, every process redesign project ought to analyze specific activities to determine if the employees are performing in the best possible manner.   When employees manifest incorrect behaviors, one must consider two possibilities:  That employees lack the skill and knowledge to perform correctly, or that they lack the motivation to do so.  If the latter, then the design team needs to call, as part of its redesign, for changes in the way the process is managed in order to change either employee attitudes, employee motivation, or both.  In either case, one finds oneself analyzing exactly how the existing supervisors relate to the employees, and then specifying changes that will lead to desired changes and, ultimately different performance.

In a similar way, when the redesign team decides to introduce changes in a new process and find there is employee resistance, one needs to follow a similar approach.  Supervisors need to be encouraged or trained to communicate the importance of the new approach, and the team needs to define behaviors that supervisors can monitor and reinforce to assure that employees do, in fact, manifest behavior compatible with the new process approach.

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