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  • Writer's pictureRuss Powell

"Fast Fixes"​ for Workforce Performance Problems

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

I was chatting with a colleague recently about a workforce performance problem—some employees consistently not doing what they're expected to do—and we wandered into the territory of what I like to call "fast fixes." This is a term I picked up from one of my favorite workforce development consultants, Bob Mager.

What Are the Fast Fixes?

When analyzing performance problems—again, trying to figure out why your people aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing—Bob recommends that you check for three "fast fixes" by answering these questions:

  1. Are expectations clear? Are your expectations known and clearly understood? If so, great! If not, state them. Clearly. And check for understanding.

  2. Are tools and other resources adequate? Are there obstacles to performance—for example, physical and/or process obstacles—that may be removed? If so, remove them.

  3. Are the workers receiving adequate feedback? Are they getting the feedback they need in order to know how well (or poorly) they're doing in relation to the desired outcome (your performance standard)? If not, help them get that feedback.

Note that all three of these fall into the category of simple, but not easy.

On Expectations

You know you're in the territory of what Bob calls "invisible expectations" when you're hearing things like this:

  • "But nobody told me."

  • "She never said she wanted it done like THAT."

  • "How was I supposed to know he wanted it this afternoon?"

  • "Well, sure, they may have changed it in the S.O.P., but nobody told US about it."

It's easy for expectations to be left fuzzy or invisible. Work requirements change, and often very quickly, and yet the communication of those changes to the people doing the work is often slow and/or inadequate.

As your first "fast fix," check to see whether performance expectations are known and understood. And if you suspect they're understood, but you're not sure, look for evidence of understanding.

I know you know this, but it bears repeating: you can't expect that just because you told someone, they automatically understood. Some discussion may be required.

As a first "fast fix," check to see whether performance expectations are known and understood. If you're not sure, look for evidence of understanding.

One of my favorite simple techniques for testing understanding is this: after I've explained my expectations and why they're important, I simply ask the other to tell me, in their own words, what they got. It typically sounds something like this: "It's really important to me to know that you've got this. And I'm assuming you'd like to be sure you understand it as well. Would you mind, for both of us, telling me in your own words your understanding of what I've asked you to do and why it's important?" I let them tell me, and then (a) confirm what they got right and (b) correct whatever they missed.

On Obstacles

Recently, a client of mine saved a boatload of time and money when she discovered that what she thought was a training issue could be solved with the simple removal of an obstacle to performance.

She had a handful of retail sales reps who were under-performing—she had discovered that they were not selling nearly as much as comparable teams under similar circumstances. Her first thought was that they need more training. But after a bit of research on the question Are tools and other resources adequate? she discovered, much to her surprise, a tools-issue that was solved relatively quickly and easily.

One of the most important tools for these reps was an "intake form" accessed via an in-store kiosk. They'd walk with a prospect to a kiosk, and then used this form to capture the prospect's contact information.

For most stores, this link was easily accessed from a top-level menu at the kiosk. In this one particular store, however, the form was buried in a sub-menu and hard to find. Compared to other stores, it took much longer for these reps to access it, and in many cases, by the time they pulled it up, the prospect had moved on—they didn't have time to wait around. "It's Saturday morning," they'd hear the prospect complain, "I've got a thousand better things to do."

When the IT team at that store moved the link to the top-level, that team of sales reps immediately began to catch up with the others.

The upshot: before spending additional time on training, remember to double-check that the workers/performers have all the tools and other resources they need.

On Feedback

We often say, "practice makes perfect." But that's not really true. It's only practice with feedback—information about the quality of performance—that makes perfect.

We often say, "practice makes perfect." But that's not really true. It's only practice with feedback—information about the quality of performance—that makes perfect.

Bob reminds us that when feedback is absent "performance is as likely to get worse as it is to get better."

Imagine you're shooting arrows at a hidden target. Without any feedback about where the arrows are landing, how are you going to improve your aim?

Of course, in a great many situations, people can generate feedback for themselves. When, for example, was the last time you needed coaching on how to start your car? But in situations when (a) people cannot generate feedback for themselves and (b) there's no outside source of feedback for expected performance, you should expect desired performance to be less than adequate.

The rule of thumb: always make sure that a feedback source exists for what you expect people to do.

Source: Analyzing Performance Problems, Mager, R & Pipe, P. (1983). The Center for Effective Performance.


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