Performance Improvement Requires Multi-tiered Approach

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Gregg V. Rock talks with Dr. Geary A. Rummler, industry pioneer in process and performance improvement

Dr. Geary A. Rummler's book, Improving Performance-How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart, is considered one of the groundbreaking works in business process and performance improvement. As a co-founder of the Performance Design Lab, he has continued to evolve and expand the theory base and methodologies that can lead to breakthrough approaches to management systems, measurement, strategy, and organization structure design and implementation. His latest book, Serious Performance Consulting According to Rummler, is designed to enable performance consultants to move beyond their focus on individuals to produce organizational results. He talked to Gregg V. Rock, Editor of BPMinstitute.org.  

ROCK:

Your book, Improving Performance, is considered a seminal work in this field. What were its central points?

RUMMLER:

The three things that I think are important about the book are the underlying notion that organizations are systems – organizations are processing systems and they are adaptive systems. Second, that there are three levels of performance in an organization that need to be linked and aligned -- organizational performance, process performance and job performer performance. Third, that all people operate in a human performance system, which is made up of their job expectations, consequences of performing, feedback, and having the necessary resources to perform their job.

ROCK:

Taken together, what is the implication?

RUMMLER:

It's taking a systems notion, and thinking of people as being part of a work system.

Processes make up work systems and the total organization is a system. So it's that same notion applied at three levels. But it’s worth calling out at the performer level in a little more detail, since that tends to get neglected.

ROCK:

Why is the role of the performer neglected?

RUMMLER:

Ultimately, you need to align the human performance systems so that people will perform. They have to be clear on what to do; they have to have the resources to do it; they cannot be punished for doing it; and they need to be provided with feedback on how well they're doing. People tend to run out of steam long before they get that done.

ROCK:

Is that why earlier business process re-engineering efforts often failed?

RUMMLER:

Ultimately, people moved boxes around on the process chart, which made sense, but they didn't take it down to the appropriate level to re-engineer or re-design the whole job environment or the human performance system. This also is the current problem with Six Sigma, which puts all its faith in improving the process and assumes that people will just go along with it and perform differently. They don't.

ROCK:

Why don’t the people perform differently?

RUMMLER:

They don't perform differently because no one has put the incentives in place; they haven't been given the tools; they haven't been explained what they have to do and why they have to do it. It's a very fundamental set of variables.

ROCK:

At each of the levels of performance you have described, what determines success?

RUMMLER:

We've identified five or six variables at each performance level, but the most critical factor is setting clear expectations, which are linked to the company's goals, and then linking the processes to goals all the way down to job performance. These variables are linked and they are cumulative--you need to keep building on them. Next, it's important that you are able to measure performance at each level to see if you've attained the desired level.

ROCK:

Is there a performance improvement sequence that needs to be followed?

RUMMLER:

You would start by redesigning a process, which people are much more comfortable with now, and generally know what it takes to make a process effective. Next, you need to go to the key performers that impact or perform that process and drill down to re-design their human performance system in order for them to do the job properly. This is easier said than done, but if you actually want to get results -- you can accomplish this by attending to a handful of things. If you want performance, you've got to be willing to do some work.

ROCK:

How is this approach different from past efforts?

RUMMLER:

In most organizations, executives assume that people are the problem and that's why we're not getting things done right, when in fact people are the solution. They generally fail to deal with people in a systematic way. Instead, they tend to turn to the latest management fad. Unfortunately, the fads tend to overemphasize a single variable, which is neither effective nor sustainable.

ROCK:

Which skills do you see in the individuals leading these types of efforts?

RUMMLER:

It seems to be people who really understand that there's a cause and effect relationship between things and that things do operate in a system and who understand that things affect each other. These skills have been hard to develop since people have become so accustomed to managing the organization based on functional silos as opposed to understanding the horizontal organization. What we're talking about is basically the vertical organization versus horizontal organization.

ROCK:

What has changed in the field since the release of Improving Performance ?

RUMMLER:

The available technology has changed, the level of competition has certainly accelerated, and the other thing that's changed and is really troublesome is the timeframe within which CEOs have to operate. This has been driven by the focus on quarterly earnings. Where CEOs once had a year or so to make things happen, they're now experiencing shortened timeframes. It makes it hard to make people invest in doing the right thing--focus on performance.

ROCK:

Which parts of Improving Performance were most understood and why?

RUMMLER:

What the vast majority of people got out of the book was the process-level stuff. After the book came out, everyone wanted to do process, process, process.

ROCK:

What part of the book did people miss?

RUMMLER:

What people forgot was the larger systems context that processes are supposed to be operating in and they have also forgotten to drive down [changes] to the job level to complete the necessary linking.

ROCK:

How did your consulting firm, The Rummler-Brache Group, approach these types of engagements?

RUMMLER:

Typically, we'd say that we're here because you feel you have a process issue and we're going to deal with that, but you have to understand that is going to be within the context of the three levels. If you don't have the processes attached to strategy and if you improve your process but fail to re-design jobs, it will be a waste of time.

ROCK:

Once process improvement has been put in place, can it come undone?

RUMMLER:

Unfortunately, some of these can unravel based on management changes. Operational improvements don't account for much if you’re headed in the wrong direction. This is actually a place where technology could help to firm up and institutionalize the programs. Although, you must be careful not to institutionalize too early.

ROCK:

How is Performance Design Labs helping companies monitor their performance?

RUMMLER:

We've developed something called Organizational IQ. Our view is that within the hierarchy of the organization someone should be looking at a set of meters--if a meter is going too far, you ought to be able to go to that meter and turn the knob. We commonly find at the top and middle, they have meters that they're looking at, but they're not sure who is going to turn the knob to bring this thing back into control. Putting some of these things in place also stops the new VP from turning things 90 degrees from the current direction or strategy. Bringing in new management can undo this quickly – unless technology and Organizational IQ are in place.

ROCK:

If a company can do one thing right now to improve their performance, in your opinion, what should it be?

RUMMLER:

Stop looking for the one thing.

 


 

 

This article originally appeared in BPM Strategies Magazine.  

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