The Systems Approach to Performance Improvement: A Personal Experience

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In the late 1970’s, I was a training manager in charge of teller training at a bank in the Midwest. I read Geary Rummler’s article “You Need Performance, Not Just Training” and experienced a Eureka! moment because I had just witnessed the exact scenario described in the article: an inept attempt at engineering the desired performance of tellers. This is the story of what happened before and after I applied Rummler’s principles of systematic performance improvement.

Once upon a time there were no ATM’s. People went to banks to get money, cash checks, pay loans, deposit funds. From a bank’s point of view, every customer interaction necessitated some amount of risk. A crooked individual could use a fake identity, a stolen passbook, or a forged signature to get funds illegally. But in the late 1970’s a new technology (the precursor to ATM’s) was developed that was destined to revolutionize banking activities. Instead of relying on written signatures, a customer would be required to enter a personal code (what we would now call a pin number) into a machine and, via an algorithm that combined the code with the customer’s account number, the customer could be identified.

The company that invented this little device—basically a keypad connected to a teller terminal—proudly marketed it to banks around the country. They claimed that Identi-Key (the brand name of the device) could reduce risk of fraud by 90%. The bank I worked for decided it should be the first bank in the Midwest to adopt this new technology.

Bank management bravely announced the advent of Identi-Key to all of its employees and set aggressive goals. They expected that 100% of all customers could be “converted” (that is, get an Identi-Key pin number) within six weeks of implementing the device in each branch office.

So after much hoopla and fanfare, training took place. The vendor had bragged that anyone could learn all there was to know about Identi-Key in just 20 minutes, and they stuck to their word. Tellers whizzed through the training sessions—learning basically how to turn the machine on, have a customer choose a pin number, and then activate the code in a matter of minutes. I was not invited to join in the design of the training despite my title of Training Manager—there was no need for my involvement other than to incorporate Identi-Key training into the standard orientation training of new tellers. I did observe the training and developed some doubts but found nobody willing to listen to me. Not yet anyway. I was branded a “sore loser” because the training program was not mine.

Soon the training was completed, the branch offices were stocked with Identi-Key equipment and brochures, and conversion was on the way. As customers came in to cash a check or pay a bill—that is, whenever they approached a teller window—the teller was to explain that the bank had a new way of identifying him or her, ask to do a quick demo, hand the customer a brochure, and pressure the customer to “convert”.

After six weeks, the conversion rates were reported, and guess what? Conversions were zero. That’s right, zero! To understand why, you have to know a little about the bank’s customers. The bank and its branches were located in the North Shore of Chicago. The typical customer was quite wealthy, older, often retired. Many customers came into the local branch every month just to deposit their dividend checks. And while nobody at the bank ever tried to verify this, in all likelihood these people were not the greatest fans of new-fangled technology nor of any change having to do with their nest eggs.

Needless to say, the bank’s executives were aghast. They had made grand promises to their board of directors, to bank regulators, to employees and the public, and now disaster loomed. It was at that point they began casting about for solutions, and finally some of them came to me. Now it’s not often that one gets to say, “I told you so” to some hard-headed executives, but in this case, I didn’t have to because my visitors were on bended knee, pleading, “Do something!”

All I asked was that I be allowed free rein as I figured out what to do, and they said yes. And then what I did was the simplest, most natural thing in the world: I asked the performer what was going on. Because believe it or not, nobody had thought to do that. I simply walked to the teller line and asked a few people, “Hey, what’s the story with Identi-Key? How’s it going?” And I got an earful. The customers hated Identi-Key. They hated the very notion of Identi-Key. They weren’t even willing to look at or operate the keypad. They would say to the teller things like, “But Jack, I come here every week. You know me. Why do you need this?” And the teller would be stumped for an answer, because he or she did not in fact need the machine to identify the customer.

And as I went from branch to branch, I heard the same problems recited. The ringing refrains were, “I don’t want to be a number” and “I hate machines”. In addition, other problems were noted, such as annoying customers by trying to get every one of them to convert even when they were in a hurry; even when the customer had only a home loan and wanted to cash a check perhaps once a year; even when the customer had multiple transactions and couldn’t be bothered to mess with something else when they were concentrating on the handling of their money; even when the bank lobby was packed with waiting customers. By the time I got done talking to the tellers they had all given up trying to promote Identi-Key and in many branches they were being silently supported by their supervisors who had also been totally turned off by the conversion failure. And the Identi-Key brochures were not helpful. They described the wonderfulness of the machine in terms of its benefits to the bank—guaranteed customer identification, matching a customer code to an account number—but didn’t provide any benefits to the customer. In today’s parlance, there was no value proposition for customers.

So… what to do? After gathering my data, I applied a simple Rummler performance analysis. When the performer—the teller—tries to perform as desired, what happens? He or she gets punished. The customer gets argumentative and refuses to cooperate, the teller’s work process gets complicated and delayed, the customer line gets slowed down, the teller is identified as unable to sell this doggone technology. This was Rummler’s famous dictum (“Put a good performer in a bad system and the system will win every time”) come to dreadful life. The system was kicking teller butt.

So some of the choices were to alter the variables of the performance system that were out of alignment, add some things that might be missing altogether, maybe even adjust the performance goal. And in the end, we did all those things.

Starting with the customer, we asked ourselves when it would be most useful for a customer to have an Identi-Key account. And we figured out those conditions where it did make sense—for customers who were often at the bank and did a lot of transactions, and in particular those who did not go just to one branch office but used several different ones. We decided that the Identi-Key campaign should identify those customers and concentrate on them.

We also looked at the traffic flow problem caused by Identi-Key and decided that in large branches and at the main bank where there were many customers, we should open a separate Identi-Key window. Then a teller would not have to interrupt their own workflow but instead they would first perform whatever services a customer required and then, if the customer seemed to fit the profile, the teller would give them a brochure and gently suggest they visit the Identi-Key window.The brochure was also rewritten, and it now contained a checklist of conditions (it was the same list mentioned two paragraphs above) that might make Identi-Key a good idea for a given customer.

We did do some training too, not in how to operate the equipment but in how to talk to customers about the benefits of Identi-Key and how to respond to objections. Instead of a classroom course, we went out to the branches with a video camera, sat down with each teller, played the customer who makes a series of objections, and videotaped the teller as he or she attempted to respond to each objection. We trainers hardly had to say a thing because all we would do was play back the teller’s performance and just about every one self-corrected, very quickly becoming proficient.

Finally, to ensure some positive consequences for the performers, we initiated a performance tracking system and rewards for conversions. We gave out weekly and monthly reports of conversion rates by branch office and by teller. And monthly we gave out rewards (e.g., days off, gift certificates) for high performers.

Six months later the conversion rate was up to 80 percent. (It never got higher because Identi-Key was not useful for some accounts and customers). It was all in all a complete turnaround, and the beginning for that organization of thoughtfulness about performance issues. And for me it was a confirmation of the theories I had read about but never had much opportunity to apply. Some of the key lessons I saw come to life, all outlined in Rummler’s approach:

  • Go look at the actual situation; don’t theorize—find out.
  • Focus on the performer—they know what is actually happening, not what should happen.
  • Assume most performers try to do a good job. Learn what happens to them when they try to perform correctly. Find out the obstacles in their way.
  • Don’t assume a single-point solution will fix a complex problem. (We changed a bunch of things—the teller’s role, the customer’s experience, the workplace layout, the placement of equipment, the measurement and tracking of performance, the support and reward system—and all of them were needed.)
  • Beware of hype—whether from managers or vendors or anyone else with a vested interest in a particular outcome. They are often blinded by their own hopes.

And thus I became a true believer in systematic performance improvement.

Copyright 2016 Performance Design Lab. Used by permission.


Ankit Tara
posted 4 years 7 weeks ago

Nice piece, Alan. Geary

Nice piece, Alan. Geary would be proud.

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