Sunday, December 18, 2011

We Appreciate and Respect Demming, Except When We Don't

Spoke with my friend, Levi, the other day via Skype.  That is a wonderful communication tool.  We visit frequently and he brought up his company's IT department planning message for 2012.  In that message, Levi’s IT department states that it wants to provide solutions to better meet its customers’ needs and desires, grow and be profitable in its business areas, and develop its people.  These all align with his company’s 3-year goals (i.e. focus on its customers, manage its business effectively, and develop its people.).

Such annual messaging is routine in many if not most US businesses; it is intended to provide a map for the next year and align the actions with strategic goals. An interesting anomaly in Levi’s company is something it calls its 2015 Vision.   According to Levi, its 2015 IT department visions are:

·     Be a provider of solutions
·     Build a skilled, passionate, and loyal workforce
·     Achieve operational excellence by leveraging data
·     Use technology to effectively build the company brand
·     Redistribute people to grow the company (Levi says the company uses the term  “resources” rather than people, but he knows what is meant)

These are separate from its company’s goals. So, its IT workforce is expected to contribute towards the fulfillment of its 3-year goals and demonstrate behaviors that align with its 2015 vision. The focus of Levi’s discussion with me involved the last of the 3-year goals – develop people – and its goal to build a skilled, passionate, and loyal workforce.  On his IT department’s website is a statement it categorizes under the Skilled Workforce section of its 2015 Vision.  It effectively states that the company must invest in people who have a “willingness” to align with the company long-term strategies and the people must also be willing to work in technologies that are “high value.”  It then states that meeting “performance standards” is an expectation for “continued employment opportunities.”  Translated: you have to be skilled in the technologies used by the company and you cannot be a slacker, whatever that term means.

And it is here that the rub with Levi rests.  A number of managers in his company tout an admiration of W. Edwards Deming, the famous quality and management guru.  But when Levi points out to them that performance management systems are one of Deming’s “7 Deadly Diseases” (i.e. severe barriers to company improvement), the tenor about Deming changes to “Well, he was misguided in that area.”  Now, Levi’s company has even brought in Six Sigma training, which evolved from Deming’s philosophy of Total Quality Management (TQM.)  So, Deming is seemingly appreciated and respected at his company…except when he isn’t.
It’s worthy to review the #3 item on Deming’s 7 Deadly Disease list (which comes from Deming’s book, Out of the Crisis):

Personal review systems, or evaluation of performance, merit rating, annual review, or annual appraisal, by whatever name, for people in management, the effects of which are devastating. Management by objective, on a go, no-go basis, without a method for accomplishment of the objective, is the same thing by another name. Management by fear would still be better.

Deming goes on to ridicule these systems (more accurately, to eviscerate them) in his book.  He writes on page 102 of Chapter 3 in Out of the Crisis:

[The performance measurement system] nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics…It leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior. It is unfair, as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system they work in (my bolded emphasis.)

Deming defends his position and argues the logic of his reasoning for several more pages in the book.

Back to Levi and his IT department.  He shared with me the department’s philosophy about developing its people:

Our ability to be a provider of solutions relies upon every employee. We must improve and strengthen the performance of our workforce. [Management] must get better at setting the performance expectations of its people and engage in constructive and straightforward conversations about how people can differentiate and elevate their performance. We must create a positive and productive atmosphere of collaboration that allows employees to question [management], provide feedback [to management about people], and give input [about performance measurement.] [Management] must recognize the need for learning agility and adaptability. Each employee must be engaged and committed to exploring new technologies and generating ideas for continuous improvement. Everyone is accountable for maintaining relevancy and competitiveness and for evolving to fit the needs of the organization.

Sounds inspirational and appropriate – no?  However, Levi mentioned many of the shortcomings and fallacies that infuse performance management systems, especially as applied to technology workers (knowledge workers.)  As Deming has stated, the process must be highly politicized because there is no way to account for the system portion of so-called performance.  Also, many of the measures are arbitrary and behaviors will adjust to be normative towards the measures.  It reminds me of Wally in Dilbert when, upon learning that his performance will be measured by the number of lines of code he writes, declares “I’m going to code me minivan!!!”  The worst part of these systems is that they stifle teamwork and teamwork is acknowledged almost universally as a key ingredient in the delivery of technical products.

So, Levi is despondent because he knows any performance management system is highly subjective and tends to measure just about anything but personal performance, but the so-called 2015 Visions have placed even more emphasis on it.  My, oh my…

Levi commented to me:

“I don’t know anyone who has ever had “constructive and straightforward career development conversations.  Who do you have those with – my manager?  I’ve tried and it’s like staring into the abyss.  My belief, perhaps naive, has been that if I have to tell someone how good of a job I am doing then I am not really doing a good job.”

He continued, “This is just the opposite of how we really assess performance and career development at work.  Case in point: the cynical but all too real, ‘I am going to write me a top rating!’  Too many people have tooted their own horn just to make themselves seem like they deserve better than others.  And this behavior is encouraged by management.  Just recently, my manager told me to change my performance document to make it sound like I was doing certain things and I was the standout.  The reality (which is how I wrote it and he even knew it without reading it) was that I worked with other people, team members, etc.  Yes, there are plenty of folks who could be adding value and being more productive if they were in different situations at work.”

“But, again, this is opposite of the assessment and career development structure in place.  I’ve seen too many analysts with the delusions of being management or architects who just go through the motions of a given position so they can get out of it as quickly as possible and climb the ladder.  I’m sorry, but this neither adds value nor contributes to better productivity at work.”

I responded:   “What I sense here is the notion that your management wants everyone in Lake Wobegone to be (way) above average.  Of course, that cannot happen and they fail to appreciate that people bring diversity of strengths and talents to the table, and some (many??) may work in a capacity that does not even leverage their greatest strengths.  And they cannot overcome system constraints.”

“I know a person who actually may be a good example – he is an admittedly an average worker in his role simply because the traditional expectations to be a highly rated worker in his role repulses him.  So, he essentially evades demonstrating or promoting the very “skills” and “competencies” they desire in his role.  He is an enigma to his management because the projects he has worked on have been vastly successful.”

“But the reasons for his successes cause his management to get grumpy – such as his advocacy of self-directed and self-organized teams, for instance.  Also, his emphasis on coaching and training the people with whom he works to operate independently of traditional project managers is contrary to the culture.  Those are not the skills or competencies found in the project manager role descriptors.  Now, if they actually asked him what he really wanted to do and let him do it, he would be training and coaching full time, I expect.  Of course, they don’t want him to do that because that is not what he is paid to do in their eyes.  So, he is in a pickle and his management is in a quandary.”

“You and I can both think of lots of people who are not doing what they want to do or what they are good at doing (and usually those are one in the same, but not always.)  Even you may categorize yourself in that boat.”

At the end of our conversation, he grimaced and shook his head.  I couldn’t offer much more than my hope that his department might come to its senses.  He ended with “I think it will take a revolution – perhaps a mass exodus of good people who just are fed up with it all in the end.”  Perhaps…that might be a good thing for those people and sad thing for this company.

1 comment:

  1. just linked this article on my facebook account. it’s a very interesting article for all.

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