Blowing the Whistle on Performance Management

The author says that the design of a performance management system is the responsibility of the system owners, and ultimately, so are the results. A poorly designed system can lead to angry and dissatisfied employees, especially as it relates to pay for performance.

In his FedSmith article Performance Management and Angry, Frustrated and Dissatisfied Employees, Dr. Howard Risher reinforced that “performance management is a serious problem in government.” In reporting the results of a survey on Pay for Performance, he reported that close to 90% of the respondents viewed their experience with pay for performance negatively, with the overwhelming complaint being bias and favoritism. The complaints also indicate waste, abuse and corruption. He attributes the problems to “institutionalized management practices,” which is another term that describes the performance management “system.”

The design of a system is the responsibility of the system owners. The system determines the majority, if not all in some cases, of the results. Assessing individual performance and then attempting to associate pay with performance independent of all the system variables that impact performance is a root cause that contributes to “angry, dissatisfied and frustrated” employees. This outcome is why Dr. W. Edwards Deming considered individual rankings as a deadly disease that infects an organization and negatively impacts quality, productivity and an individual’s right to experience joy in their work.

The quality of line and operations managers who are responsible for administering a performance management system was the topic of a survey discussed in the Government Executive magazine article HR pros offer bleak assessment of federal managers. The survey, conducted by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service reported that “one-third of federal human resource professionals don’t think agency managers have the skills to succeed.” The “skills to succeed” include managing their performance and the performance of the employees they manage.

Unless agency managers have a basic knowledge and understanding of variability, the more accurate assessment may be that 99.5% of agency managers (and non-management personnel) lack the skills and knowledge needed to accurately assess and recognize performance.

Improving the System – The Fourth Branch of Government

The owners of the performance management system in the federal government include agency managers as well other representatives from the “four” branches of government:

  1. Executive
  2. Legislative
  3. Judicial
  4. We the People – i.e., individual citizens who may also happen to be current or former government employees

It is the constitutional responsibility of the fourth branch of government to hold the other three accountable.

Dr. Walter Shewhart and Deming gave us not only a framework for managing variability but also a method that can be applied to provide the feedback needed for determining if a change to a system, such as a performance management system, results in improvement. To help explain the framework and method as it applies to assessing individual and management performance, Deming developed the red bead exercise. Googling “Deming red beads” will identify links to more information. There is also a simulation of the exercise conducted by Steve Prevette on YouTube. My previous articles also offer examples and links to more information.

I conducted the red bead experiment over a 100 times in a 15-year period for a wide variety of organizations. I expanded on the exercise by providing assessments of attendees’ performance, which included firing the poor performers and awarding superior performers with bonuses and promotions. Post exercise surveys indicated 100% agreement that that individual performance was due to the system and not the employees and that the actions I took to manage performance added no value and decreased morale and productivity.

One way to assess federal systems is through the application of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. Well-managed organizations would likely score in the 200 point range, with the maximum score being 1,000 points. Well-led organizations that continually strive for excellence and choose to compete for the Baldrige Award would likely score in the 700 or higher point range.

Some individuals might have a hard time “letting go” of the status quo. In other words, they’ll continue to develop a performance management system, manage the system, determine that it’s broken, and then repeat the cycle every five years or so. If you’re having a hard time letting go, I recommend that you don’t support the next cycle until you address the following two questions:

  1. Given an assessment of organizational performance using the Baldrige criteria, how would you rate managers and employees in organizations that would score in the 200 point range as opposed to managers and employees in organizations at the 700 point level?
  2. Speaking as a member of the fourth branch of government (We the People), do you think that an organization scoring 200 points or an organization scoring 700 points would provide the expected level of service?

A Way Ahead

Mark Twain commented on the barrier to learning new things in his quip:  “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

To paraphrase the barrier in regard to performance management, it’s what you think you know that stops you from learning about what you don’t know. You cannot effectively manage the performance of a system and the people that work within it without a basic knowledge and understanding of variability.

In my article Individual and System Performance – Pass or Fail? , I presented the case that the pass-fail option regarding individual performance would do the least amount of damage. Adoption of the Baldrige performance management framework to assess and improve the system offers a longer term solution.

Learning the lessons of the red bead exercise may help shorten the learning curve associated with developing an understanding of the basics for managing variability. It can also help you understand why the changes are needed.

Deming, who first learned about variability in the early 1920s from Shewhart, estimated in 1986 that it would be another 50 years (2036) before the methods for managing variability were more commonly understood. Deming’s contributions to quality, which include performance management, were considered by the editors of Fortune magazine as among the greatest contributions in business history.

Given the economic and political challenges facing our country and the need to create new jobs to grow the economy, reduce the debt, improve the quality of government and meet commitments to the American people, it’s up to us – the fourth branch of government – to learn and expect the application of better methods to assess and improve performance. The result will be a step forward in helping to bring about a more perfect union.

About the Author

Timothy J. Clark retired from the federal government with 35 years of service. He is a former enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army. He retired at the rank of Colonel, with over 30 years of combined service in the U.S. Army, National Guard and Army Reserve. He is a strategic analyst with the American Center for Quality Leadership and is active in economic and community development in a small rural county in Indiana.