Performance Mindset


I believe a reason many organizations fail to meet their goals is not because the goals are unrealistic but because they don’t have a clear path to achieve them.  Setting is goals is necessary and valuable.  Goals are motivating and provide a benchmark for performance.  However, setting a goal is only part of the story.  There must be a plan for achieving the goal.

That is why I love David Brailsford’s approach.  He sets goals and has a plan for achieving them.  In the video above, Sir David explains his approach.  I have summarized this below.

  • The cumulative effect of 1% gains leads to significantly improved performance.  What is the goal?  Not victories but improved performance.  See points 3 & 5.
  • Look at every aspect of your operation.  His team looked at obvious things like diet, fitness, and tactics but also considered recovery, technological developments and psychology.
  • Enough fractional improvements add up to a larger fraction and lead to a better outcome.
  • Analyze every aspect of your operation, set goals and work out a plan to achieve them.
  • “Focus on the process not the outcome and you’re going to get the best chance of being the best that you can be.  What can I do today to optimize my chances?”
  • Coaching is important.  If you expect the rider to be the best then why don’t you expect the same of the coaches?

Where did this approach take British cycling and Team Sky?

— Source: Wikipedia

This approach is radically different than most organizations take.  In an era where outcomes dominate our attention, it is hard to adopt a process-oriented approach.  It is a vastly different mindset that many cannot grasp.  It takes courage.  It takes confidence.  It takes humility.

Another thing I like about this approach is that it is scalable.  No matter how large your organization or the size of your team you can apply the principles listed above.  Team Sky has less than 30 riders and 18 support staff.  The key is your mindset.  Do your employees know what to look for?  Do they feel comfortable bringing ideas for marginal gains to you?  Are you willing to meet and discuss opportunities to gain with your employees regularly?

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Why is it that the attention to process improvement seems to be episodic.  If you use the dieting and exercise metaphor, most people should probably dieting and exercising all the time but we know they don’t.  They go on binge diets.  They go on binge exercise programs.  They make New Year’s resolutions that they don’t hold on to.  What is it about human nature, what is it about organizations that cause them to adopt an improvement activity for a period of time and then lose interest and move on to something else?

I have first hand experience with this phenomenon.  I have concluded that a change in mindset and culture is required to truly see the benefits of process improvement.  That is why I am linking to this presentation by Brad Power.  In the 20 minute discussion he diagnoses the causes of what he calls “Process Attention Deficit Disorder” and prescribes a remedy.  Since this is a long discussion I have quoted some excerpts that attracted my attention below (key points in bold text).

What I take away from these stories is that the natural way of operating is not to have continuous improvement.  That these improvement activities required an injection of energy.  They require a non-natural way of operating.  It’s very hard to build it in and make it natural so that it sustains.  If you’re looking at this in terms of physics, gravity draws you not to do improvement.  Gravity drives you to a steady state, focusing on doing your job day to day, not on continuously improving how you do your work…You have to consciously build things into the system to make it happen.

As I was listening it dawned on me that the only remedy is for leaders to consciously focus on sustaining the focus on process improvement.  Here is how Mr. Power addresses this topic.

In the Western world, new leaders are treated like rock stars and are expected to bring in their own way to improve the company.  A company can go through a new process improvement strategy with each successive leader but not necessarily see the benefits of any.

Here is advice Mr. Power offers for sustaining process improvement.

  • Put yourself on a steady “diet and exercise” program.
  • Adhere to management “best practices.” (e.g., focusing on short-term results vs. long-term; Focusing on functions and business processes)
  • Understand the role process improvement plays in your business strategy – Process improvement isn’t necessarily the way every company competes.
  • Apply appropriate management processes (Traditional vs. Lean)
  1. Strategy execution
  2. Performance management – Metrics, incentives, rewards
  3. Talent management – How people advance through the organization
  4. Problem solving – Traditional would rely on outside consultants where a lean methodology relies on front-liners
  • Pain of disruption – People have to embrace change and be willing to change the way that they work.  Most people prefer to stay with the way that is comfortable and you have to apply various techniques to overcome this.

Mr. Power’s advice for creating a culture of process improvement

Because its an unnatural act to improve, [leaders] need to build into [their] management processes time set aside for improvement.

  • When addressing his team, a leader should take 10 minutes out of an hour to focus on improvement activities
  • In monthly/quarterly meetings set time aside to discuss improvement activities
  • Have people and resources dedicated to improvement activities
  • Have mechanisms in place so good ideas have a channel to get implemented
  • Change your view of disruption (not always a bad thing) – Give people time to innovate.

ISPI publishes a weekly digest of news and information for performance improvement consultants.  Last week they published their top stories for 2011.  Over the next few days I will feature my thoughts on those I feel are particularly noteworthy.
Click here for my first entry.
Click here for my second entry.

I come from a process improvement background.  My job is to look for opportunities to improve individual and organizational performance.  Almost a year ago, Harvard Business Review posted an entry on process ownership.  As we move into a new year the question asked in the title is worth pondering.

To begin, I agree with the author’s assessment of process improvement efforts.

When organizations set about improving the way they work, the natural tendency is for them to do it within functions. They don’t necessarily improve processes that cross function.

However, I disagree with his assertion that “companies must appoint process owners to ensure that processes are improved across functions.”  This is controversial because he names several well-known “gurus” of process improvement who advocate this approach.  But this is a blog so I am obligated to be controversial.  Right?

The author cites these experts’ recommendation that companies “establish the process owners, process councils, and other pieces of a formal process governance structure to manage their six to 10 core, cross-functional processes. The process owners are supposed to be highly placed, respected, and connected to make things happen. Their responsibilities include:

  • Acting as the “voice of the customer” by understanding customers’ total experience with a company, from the moment they learn about it to the moment they end the relationship.
  • Monitoring process key performance indicators (KPIs) and keeping top executives apprised of how processes are performing.
  • Making sure the company’s key processes are delivering competitive advantage, or if not, that the right fixes are on the way.”

I agree that a plan for process improvement is better than nothing.  However, I believe this approach will ultimately fail or lose momentum because it is too formal and possibly redundant.  In his own words, the author says the owners have to be “highly placed, respected, and connected.”  He is saying that the people responsible for process ownership should not be the people who actually perform the processes.  How crazy is that?

Its no surprise that he ends his post listing reasons why organizations revert to functional management.  He provides a long list, but most of them trace their origins to the fact that the people responsible for process ownership are too far removed from the actual processes.  Below are the reasons.  In his post the author provides additional explanations for each.

1. Attention shifted

2. Roles were misunderstood

3. Accountability was lacking

4. The role had little influence

5. The organizational structure was too complex

6. Employees were uncomfortable

For organizations that are serious about achieving and sustaining cross-functional process improvement, I recommend establishing process owners.

If a process owners are defined as “pieces of a formal process governance structure to manage their six to 10 core, cross-functional processes” I believe the effort will not succeed.  Here’s why.

  • Attention always shifts – The further you get away from the actual work the harder it is to maintain focus and urgency.
  • Organizations are complex – Additionally, embedding process improvement in a formal process governance ties process ownership to organizational structure which has rules and hierarchies.  This is not a bad thing, its just limiting.
  • Improvement can’t always be formalized – Employees need to have some freedom to try new things on their own.  An employee has to submit an improvement idea before they can experiment with it is less likely to bother.

I believe process improvement is cultural.  I make my living looking for ways to improve personal and organizational performance but I can’t do it alone.  An organization that wants to improve should encourage its employees to look for ways to improve, provide mechanisms for capturing those improvements, and incentives to motivate them.

I may be the last person to see the video below but that is nothing new.  I post this without comment for those who have not seen it and for those who would benefit from the reminder.

If you follow sports you have heard an athlete describe situations where the game seemed to slow down.  Under these circumstances receivers look a little more open to the quarterback.  Holes in the offensive line look bigger to the running back.  The ball looks bigger to a hitter.  In each of these cases, the player is seeing things that others are not.

How does this happen?  It can’t be just great talent (but that helps).  There are plenty of athletes who occasionally perform at a high level simply due to their physical abilities.  Why can’t they do it consistently?

Performing at a high level consistently takes more than great physical ability.  It takes a deep understanding of the basics.  I propose that players like Peyton Manning, Emmit Smith, and Albert Pujols have in common is mastery of the fundamentals.

I believe this applies to all disciplines.  Whether its your job, parenting, or recreational pursuits.  You cannot expect to consistently perform at a high level until you have spent time examining the basics and mastering them.

In my experience when you master the basics, things that were once challenging become enjoyable and sometimes fun.