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Lean on Me: The Pitfalls of Performance Measurement

Lean on Me: The Pitfalls of Performance Measurement

Lean isn’t just about process improvements and efficiency. It also requires cultivating a culture of respect. In this second of a 3-part series on understanding the people side of lean we explore how focusing on the team of people behind the numbers can help overcome the common pitfalls of performance measurement. See also: Part 1 and Part 3.

Great team experiences often include the story of people banding together to overcome a meaningful challenge; a sense of everyone moving together so that the work flows effortlessly; a strong feeling of camaraderie; confidence that you have each other’s back and that each person is contributing their own unique talent to create a valuable and meaningful result. If you’ve experienced this once in your life, here’s the good news: you can create that again. More good news: most people have a memory like this that you can tap into. If you and your team can develop good habits, you can achieve that vision of a high-functioning team that plays well together, and plays to win.

In my work with teams and organizations, it pains me to witness people being bullied with performance measures, well-intentioned as these efforts may be. Lean is one of many management approaches to advocate the consistent use of metrics, and in the public sector, make no mistake, we tend to be woefully weak on meaningful measures of performance. But when starting or ramping up performance measurement efforts, leaders should be mindful of the messages they are sending.

Some managers mistakenly believe they can command and control the workforce by imposing performance metrics that cascade down from a strategic plan and are embedded into individual performance evaluations. Employees are forced to “feed the beast that bites them,” laboring to submit data into a computerized tracking system, only to feel unfairly judged and stressed out by the ritualistic posting of quarterly statistics reports. Managers frantically work extra hours to complete work at night after fighting brush fires all day, while employees struggle to keep up with punishing workloads under exhortations to “take initiative!” and “do more with less.”

Sometimes we overdo it in an effort to correct the imbalance. We overpromise, knowing that we very well may end up under-delivering. Nevertheless we hope, we wish, and we pray the numbers will come out better in the next report. Or worse—we game the numbers, trying to give upper-level leaders the results they crave. We celebrate successes that are really the result of happy accidents, and we scurry for cover when it looks like the numbers aren’t going to fall our way.

I call this the mania of performance perversions. Author Ken Miller calls it the crazy cycle.

We sometimes get stuck in this vicious cycle, devolving into the blame game, where every person is out for themselves, sucking up whatever they can get from the value stream, instead of giving more and more of themselves to the team’s shared purpose.

A gutsy leader can express aspirational goals with numerical targets and raise expectations for measurable results. But what happens when the media gets hold of the targets and loudly claims that they are set far too low? Or when your boss calls out one of your employees for dragging down the numbers, when you know there’s another side to the story? Your employees will look to you to determine if performance measures will be used for ill or for good. In other words, you must be prepared to back your people up when the going gets rough.

None of Us Is As Smart As All of Us

Works teams are like ship crews, it’s everyone working together that brings about success.

If you can relate to the pitfalls of performance measurement, your team may be suffering in silence, allowing the situation to continue or worsen. Pent-up resentment is a common cause of disrespect in the workplace. It takes skill to navigate those uncomfortable conversations necessary to confront our truth and break through to clarity and mutual purpose. (I recommend the books on Crucial Conversations for anyone interested in getting out of this silence-or-violence trap.)

Even if your organization has avoided the pitfalls or isn’t invested in “lean,” you can still strengthen the pillar of respect for people. Become a leader who is courageous enough to set high standards, and sensitive enough to remove fear and confusion. We delude ourselves when we think we have to choose between speaking our truth and showing respect, between having high standards and having compassion. You can speak up to the mayor and point out the potential pitfalls of his or her approach in a respectful way, just as you can expect great work from your team without alienating them. These things are hard to do because they involve taking risks. Remember that clarity is your best weapon for cutting through confusion and resistance, and compassion is your best practice for driving fear out of the workplace.

The Japanese proverb “none of us is as smart as all of us” captures the essence of why respect for people is such a fundamental principle for any group endeavor. Think of your team as the crew on a boat. Certainly it is easy to spot the captain’s role in setting the course and making decisions when the weather changes. But without the cook, the crew would starve. Without the navigator, the boat would get lost. Without the sailors, there would be no wind in the sails. When the seas get stormy, some leaders feel great pressure to have all the answers, when in reality a truly high functioning team shares the responsibility to bring the ship safely to port.

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About Larisa Benson

Larisa Benson writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Larisa Benson is a teacher of management disciplines, a seeker of new ideas and a fan of people who choose to give their energy and talent in service to community. She is a principal consultant with The Athena Group and a faculty member at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.