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Sep 20 2015
Performance Improvement as Design Engineering

I continue to come back to a theme that I and Dr. Donald Tosti addressed in a session at the annual conference of ISPI a few years ago, the difference between a problem-solving orientation to performance improvement and what we called a design engineering approach. Don was an informal mentor of mine, and an inspiration for decades, in many different ways. In this instance we found that we are in "violent agreement" and have continued the dialog over time.  Don says that before the quality movement, performance improvement wasn't so focused on finding the cause of problems, but rather it was about getting the best possible performance as efficiently as possible. Today it seems more tilted toward problem-solving.

At The Performance Thinking Network we have a bias for design engineering -- what I often describe as optimization or tuning and balancing of performance systems.  The Performance Chain and the Six Boxes Model are very helpful in this way because they lay out visually and conceptually the elements that need to be tuned and balanced.

First, we try to be sure we're focusing on valuable work outputs (what Tom Gilbert called accomplishments), to identify the ones that are not being produced or could be produced better.  We judge them as valuable to the extent that they contribute to business results.  Our initial focus on outputs, rather than on behavior or skills and knowledge, helps us zero in pretty quickly on the really important targets.

Then, when we figure out what people need to DO to produce the desired work outputs (that is, when we identify required behavior), we try to be sure that all the categories represented by the Six Boxes Model are optimized for impact, synergy, and cost-effectiveness.  There are almost always ways to strengthen how expectations are set and feedback is provided.  Often there are factors in box 2 -- tools and resources -- that can be improved, with processes, job redesigns, performance support, access to coaches, and so on.  And there is virtually never a case where we can't do a better job with personal delivery of recognition by managers and supervisors, and even by peers, for excellent performance -- box 3 -- and aligning consequences with expectations.   If we do all these things well, then if there are needed skills and knowledge (box 4), we can generally provide them in a cost-effective way as long as we avoid knee-jerk training. And so on.

This is how we approach performance:  If there is performance of value (defined by its valuable work outputs), then we do our best to be sure all cylinders are hitting, all six boxes are working to optimize the behavior needed to produce the outputs.

The contrasting approach is what I see over and over again in client organizations and among some of our most sophisticated colleagues, a big focus on finding the "problem" and identifying the "root cause" and then  fixing it.  But as anyone can see who has stood back and taken a look at performance through a systems-thinking lens such as The Six Boxes Model, there are almost ALWAYS multiple opportunities for improvement, not just one hole in the dike needing to be plugged.  If we  were just trying to resuscitate broken systems rather than optimizing and improving, we'd be working awfully hard for marginal results. The goal is to maximize ROI for our investments in people, and just plugging holes will seldom accomplish that.

I don't have anything against root cause analysis when we're trying to improve defects in quality processes, or when something is just plain broken. But in many cases, an awful lot of paper and hours of interviews and investigation go to waste, in my opinion, when the opportunities for improvement are quite clear if we just look at the variables needed to optimize human performance. We know we need to have operative elements in all six boxes of the model. Our approach, which we think is often quicker and more direct, is simply to do what we can cost-effectively to improve those factors -- those behavior influences -- to optimize, tune, and balance the overall system.

Any thoughts?

Carl Binder, CPT

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