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Performance Management

In identifying work goals, the concept of continuous but not miraculous improvement is paramount.

Maximizing and measuring our own performance and that of the people who work for us is a basic tenant of the work environment. This article suggests a simple tool and approach that can be beneficial in achieving this aim. For those where performance management approaches and measurements are prescribed, this article should still provide some helpful hints on improving either your own or your employees' performance within your present system.

The Need for a Roadmap

What is it that our employers want from us? They want us to manage or perform our function efficiently and effectively in achieving the overall business goals of the company. This generally boils down to shareholder value (profit) or achievement of our goals at least cost (nonprofits).

Because our role is not normally to directly produce or sell the product, we must use other measures to determine our contribution to the bottom line. In order to judge whether or not we meet or exceed the expectations of our employer, we must first understand the overall company business goals and how we can assist in meeting them.

Business goals are normally found in business plans that most companies and organizations develop on a yearly basis within an overall strategic plan. A good understanding of the "plan" will enable us to integrate our own plans for contributing to this larger company effort. To quote Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts, "Critical to a Hun's success is a clear understanding of what the king wants."

It could be assumed for our profession that one of the goals would be a reduction in costs due to injuries, illness and environmental incidents. Other common goals might be: the effective and efficient start-up of a new operation or process; enhancements in productivity; improved quality; improved brand recognition; improved sales through product stewardship; improved productivity through operational reliability; optimizing human resources; and other such measures that will enhance profitability and competitiveness. For those in other lines of work (e.g., consulting, academia, government, labor), you can substitute your own organizational goals.

Boss, the Plan, the Plan!

We all need to have a plan for our department and for ourselves. Even if you are not directly involved in the planning process, you should have a plan. I suggest a simplified and pragmatic version of the Steven Covey Win/Win agreement. The plan does not need to be complicated. In fact, the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) concept works well here. Given our current love of the various time management tools that abound in the form of leather bound spiral and three-ring green sheets (I admit to having one, too) which control our lives, this concept should not be difficult to implement.

The plan should start with a brief recap of the overall company business goals and the goals of the group where you have responsibility. Goals such as being number one in the market are nice but esoteric as they relate to safety, health and environmental issues. What is more concrete is what we can do to achieve that overarching goal.

Once these company goals are established, they provide the framework and boundaries for our personal and work goals. What we are talking about is a relatively simple listing of the 10 or 20 "things" that you will accomplish over the year to improve the performance of your group in line with the overall strategic and business plans for the company. This does not mean identification of the routine aspects of your job. It means the identification of the special projects or things that you will do differently. Stretch goals are great but if the plan contains a majority of them, it is a plan for failure. The concept of continuous but not miraculous improvement is paramount here.

Structuring the Plan

As an example of how such a plan might be structured, I would recommend a three-column format. Column one would be a brief description of what you want to do in terms that can be measured. Column two would be the date or time period when you will accomplish the goal. Column three would be what was accomplished (to be filled in during the performance year). This is a relative painless exercise that is very well suited to using any of the word processor table formats or spreadsheet software.

The trick here is to be sure that the goals are concise (not over a couple of pages); there are progressive due dates (not to accomplish everything by the end of the year); and that achievement of the goals can be determined in a definitive way. If you are in charge (or at least think so), you can roll up the plans of your staff into your own plan. In fact, a planning process with your staff that is bottom up works very well and provides some sense of ownership.

Monitoring the Plan

A common approach for many industries and other organizations is trend-tracking that is often equated to performance. These trends could be costs associated with accidents, illnesses and incidents, reductions in waste products, etc. In other organizations, it might be an increase in membership, research grants, publications, sales or any number of other measures. Because most of the indicators used to monitor performance are trailing, they reflect what was achieved. This is good but only part of the equation. The other part of the equation is new ideas and projects for which we have more control but have benefits which may not be reflected in the next quarter's indicators. Obviously, the overall performance of the individual and the group will be tied to both aspects.

I suggest that performance management be tied directly to those things over which we have some individual control as well as those things which reflect the efforts of the many. Specifically, project lists should be reviewed with the originator on a regular basis to track progress or to make changes. If this is done using computer software, it then becomes quite easy to evaluate the overall level of achievement for the dreaded annual review. This also provides a record of our goals and accomplishments which we can use to help refresh our overloaded human hard drives.

Time to Pay the Piper

A common mistake in performance management is the lack of attention to progress on our plans. This is definitely not the case with operations where financial and productivity measures are monitored almost hourly. For professionals, such as ourselves, we typically get annual reviews. Everyone is so harried these days that reviews tend to stretch over to a last-minute meeting with our boss just before the mandatory performance review deadline.

What is needed is monthly or quarterly reviews and revisions to our plans because things tend to change. My own opinion is that quarterly reviews are best since monthly reviews can be burdensome. This means some extra work for our managers and us, but it is the best way to direct performance and respond to changing priorities. In some ways, this form of performance management is analogous to an ISO systems approach. That is, tell me what you are going to do, do it, and prove it.

For those who have some other type of performance management system that is mandated by the company, I would suggest that you might find it effective to use this system for a self-assessment or perhaps as an informal way to communicate priorities and accomplishments with your boss.

The Bottom Line

In The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams, he describes the performance review as a dead squirrel that gets tossed around only to keep returning. Everyone hates to give or receive performance reviews. Performance management works best when there is a self-directed plan with which all parties are in agreement. The plan needs to be flexible and allow for regular self-assessment and management feedback. For those who meet or exceed the plan, there should be rewards. For those that do not meet their own goals, there should be an examination of why.

Contributing Editor Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP, is a consultant in industrial hygiene and a former president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

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