A breakthrough!…but is it all that it seems?

The word Breakthrough breaking through glass to symbolize discovSo, over the last few days a number of people have sent me links to this recent business article on Stuff: Accenture ditches annual performance reviews. Thanks for that, you know who you are 🙂

In summary:

  • Accenture, one of the largest professional services organisations in the world has decided to radically change its people processes: getting rid of the annual performance review
  • They aren’t the first ‘big beast’ to do something like this:
    • Deloitte (THE biggest professional services organisation in the world) went public in a similar vein last March. An April 2015 HBR article called Reinventing performance management explains where they are going;
    • I understand that the likes of Microsoft, Expedia and Adobe dropped most or all of the performance review process a couple of years ago;
    • Our very own NZ organisation, Telecom (or is that Spark?!), appeared to be heading down a similar path back in 2013 , though this would appear to me to have been driven by cost rather than the science of psychology:

Telecom [will] stop using online forms to appraise staff performance, reverting to a “far lighter” system of one-on-ones and “adult-to-adult conversations” on regular four-to-eight week cycles, he [Simon Moutter, CEO] said.

The “forms and processes” associated with performance appraisal had impeded Telecom, he said.”When we hit ‘appraisal season’, the company nearly grinds to a halt with the bureaucracy.”

Caveat: Looking at this 2015 Spark site, I’m not sure whether they successfully ‘broke away’ from the past…the picture at the bottom looks remarkably familiar!

A reminder: I have written quite a bit on the subject of performance review. In particular see An exercise in futility.


What I find highly ironic about professional services firms eulogising about their new found wisdom is that they have large ‘human capital’ consulting arms that have been selling their wares for decades (I know, I used to work alongside them)…and what have they been earning millions of $ on? Yep, advising on implementing supposedly highly researched incentives schemes and performance review programmes….you know, the ones that they have now decided aren’t so great.

Taking a look, for example, at Deloitte’s website, I can deduce that they see a huge opportunity in presenting themselves as (what professional service organisations love to call themselves) ‘thought leaders’ to sell their new-found performance management brilliance (the next Silver Bullet) to all the other organisations out there.

A Fudge?

I have read the Deloitte HBR article (referenced above) and I see their ‘answer’ as a likely fudge.

They talk a lot about the wasteful time and effort expended in the current annual appraisal system. They talk about it not actually deriving valid results (being hugely biased by who is making the judgement). Yet their answer (when boiled down to its essence) is to merely make it simpler – a sort of ‘reboot’. It would appear that they are still asking questions about a person to rate them, which will determine a reward.

You could point to their strap line of “Replace ‘rank and yank’ with coaching and development” and, yes, I can get behind that BUT:

  • they haven’t once talked about the system and its monumental effect on what a person can (or cannot) achieve; and
  • they appear to be clinging to the idea of motivating an individual’s performance through contingent rewards, and judging them accordingly.

I can see that the games people understandably play will simply mutate, yet remain.

“Tell me how you will measure me and I will [show] you how I will behave” (Goldratt).

Going back to Alfie Kohn’s work:

  • First you need to remove contingent rewards;
  • Second, you need to re-evaluate the performance review process (change from judgement to feedback);and
  • Then you can create the conditions for authentic motivation.

A reminder of why judgement and rewards do not belong anywhere near helping people develop:

“If your parent or teacher or manager is sitting in judgement of what you do, and if that judgement will determine whether good things or bad things happen to you, this cannot help but warp your relationship with that person.

You will not be working collaboratively in order to learn or grow; you will be trying to get him or her to approve of what you are doing so that you can get the goodies.

A powerful inducement has been created to conceal problems, to present yourself as infinitely competent, and to spend your energies trying to impress (or flatter) the person with power.” (Kohn)

“Mind the gap”

Many an organisation might read about* what the likes of Accenture are doing and conclude that, clearly, they need to copy them.

But a reminder of the dangers of copying: Yes, look at what others are doing and, yes, be curious as to why…BUT you need to work it out for yourselves – you need to ‘get’ why it is the right thing to do and then adapt it accordingly. Otherwise you can expect one great big mess.

(* A particular quote from the Accenture article which I found of interest: “Employees that do best in performance management systems tend to be the employees that are the most narcissistic and self-promoting” We should be seriously questioning if this is actually what we want.)

“Nothing to see here”

Whilst a part of me is very pleased to see the big beasts ‘coming out’ (more or less) against the performance review process:

  • I’m unmoved (being polite) by their commissioning/ invoking of seemingly new and brilliant research that arrived at their ‘new insights’.

Why? Well, there’s nothing new here. Go back to Alfie Kohn’s brilliant book ‘Punished by Rewards’ to see the body of research from many decades ago. Go back to Deming’s 4 day lectures that he gave to thousands between 1981 and 1993 (that’s more than 30 years ago!!):

Deming’s Deadly disease number 3: Evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review

“In practise, annual ratings are a disease, annihilating long term planning, demolishing teamwork, nourishing rivalry and politics, leaving people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior…sending companies down the tube.”

…go back even further to what Deming and the Japanese were doing from the 1950s.

During this time, the majority of large corporations have been pushing in, and constantly justifying, the exact opposite of where they have arrived at now.

Now, to be clear, I think it is really great that there appears to be a movement against the ridiculous performance review process BUT:

  • I’m not convinced that they fully ‘get it’ in respect of human psychology; and
  • I think it is disingenuous, arrogant (or maybe ignorant) of any organisation that does not (outwardly) recognise that what they have just ‘discovered’ has been there, loud and clear, in front of their eyes all the time.

Benchmarking – worse than cheating

CheatingDo you remember back to your school days, and the scandalous crime of cheating by copying someone else’s work?

Why was school-boy (& girl) copying seen as such a sin?

  1. The most obvious reason in traditional education is that you are cheating the ‘grading’ system such that people will think you are ‘better’ than you (currently) are;
  2. But, what’s far worse is that you haven’t actually gone through the learning and development process, for yourself…which is what education should be about.

So why am I comparing and contrasting ‘benchmarking’ with school-boy copying? Let’s first look at a definition:

“Benchmarking: Managers compare the performance of their products or processes externally with those of competitors and best-in-class companies and internally with other operations within their own firms that perform similar activities.

The objective of Benchmarking is to find examples of superior performance and to understand the processes and practices driving that performance.

Companies then improve their performance by tailoring and incorporating these best practices into their own operations.” (from Bain & Co. website – a well regarded Management Consulting organisation selling its benchmarking services)

So, essentially Benchmarking is akin to deliberately (and usually openly) finding out who the best kids in the class are and then trying to copy them…with this being seen as a logical and acceptable thing to do. Business is clearly different to Education (right?)

A number of things strike me about this ‘benchmarking’ definition:

  • It assumes that, if I find someone with excellent ‘result metrics’ (in respect of what I chose to look for) then:
    • the metrics I see are true (undistorted) and tell the whole picture (e.g. cope with differing purposes, explain variation,…); and consequently that
    • I should be doing what they are doing…which implies that I can easily, correctly and completely unpick how they arrived at these results;
  • It is about managers looking for answers externally and, essentially, telling the workers which areas will change, and to what degree (commanding and controlling);
  • It is looking at what other organisations are doing rather than what the customer requires (wrong focus)…and likely constrains true innovation;
  • It focuses on component parts of the system, rather than the system as a whole (which will likely destroy value in the system);
  • It incorporates the related, and equally flawed, idea of ‘best practise’ (rather than understanding that, setting aside the above criticisms, there may be better practises but no such thing as perfection);

Sure, we should be aware of what other organisations, including our competitors, are doing for the good of their customers but attempting to copy them is far too simplistic (see my very first post re. ‘perspective’ ).

It is interesting to read what Jim Womack (et al at MIT) had to say about benchmarking after they spent many years studying the global car industry.

“…we now feel that benchmarking is a waste of time for managers that understand lean thinking. Benchmarkers who discover their ‘performance’ is superior to their competitors have a natural tendency to relax, whilst [those] discovering that their ‘performance’ is inferior often have a hard time understanding exactly why. They tend to get distracted by easy-to-measure or impossible-to-emulate differences in costs, scale or ‘culture’…

…our earnest advice…is simple: To hell with your competitors; compete against perfection…this is an absolute rather than a relative standard which can provide the essential North Star for any organisation. In its most spectacular application, it has kept the Toyota organisation in the lead for forty years.”

And to compete against perfection, you must first truly understand your own system:

“Comparing your organisation with anything is not the right place to start change. It will lead to unreliable conclusions and inappropriate or irrelevant actions. The right place to start change, if you want to improve, is to understand the ‘what and why’ of your current performance as a system.” (John Seddon)

Each organisation should have its own purpose, which attracts its own set of customers, who have their specific needs (which we need to constantly listen to)…, which then determine the absolute perfection we need to be continually aiming for.

You can see that, if we use benchmark metrics, we usually end up back with the Target/ Incentive game. We can expect distorted results and ‘wrong’ behaviours.

The real point – Experimentation and learning: Now you might respond “okay, so we won’t benchmark on result metrics…but surely we should be benchmarking on the methods being used by others?”

The trouble with this goes back to the 2nd, and most consequential, ‘sin’ of school boy copying – if you copy another’s method, you won’t learn and you won’t develop.

“We should not spend too much time benchmarking what others – including Toyota – are doing. You yourself are the benchmark:

  • Where are you now?
  • Where do you want to be next?
  • What obstacles are preventing you from getting there?

…the ability of your company to be competitive and survive lies not so much in solutions themselves, but in the capability of the people in your organisation to understand a situation and develop solutions. (Mike Rother)

When you ‘benchmark’ against another organisation’s methods you see their results and you (perhaps) can adequately describe what you see, but:

  • you don’t understand how they got to where they are currently at, nor where they will be able to get to next;
  • you are not utilising the brains and passion of your workers, to take you where they undeniably can if you provide the environment to allow them to do so.

…and, as a result, you will remain relatively static (and stale) despite what changes in method you copy.

“When you give an employee an answer, you rob them of the opportunity to figure it out themselves and the opportunity to grow and develop.” (John Shook)

What you see depends upon your perspective.

uh___perspective__by_paper_flowersIf you go on a site visit to see another organisation, let’s say because you want to see if you can ‘borrow’ someone else’s brilliant ideas, be very mindful of the effect of your own constrained thinking on what you will see!

“…Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” (Marcus Aurelius)


The Operations Manager: If you go to see a manufacturing plant, see that it is really clean and tidy, notice that they use a technique (and related tools) called ‘5S’…you could come back to your own plant and tell everyone to ‘do 5S’.

…but you would have missed the point as to how that manufacturing plant arrived at their current reality. They will likely have engaged everybody in the factory as part of a deeper ‘Lean/ Systems Thinking’ management system. They will have an environment in which ‘5S’ is relevant to them and can thrive.

It is likely that your top-down mandate to ‘do 5S’ won’t be embraced and you, the ‘command-and-controller’ will say “it didn’t work here”…and will go looking somewhere else for another ‘brilliant idea’ to impose.

The Healthcare Executive: If you go to see a hospital looking for ‘best practise’, see that some of the best surgeons use ‘checklists’…you could purchase a pack of ‘expert designed’ checklists from a consultant and mandate their use by all your surgeons.

….but you would have missed the point that the checklists (or any other effective yet dynamic ‘standardised work’) were designed and owned by the people who were using them because they believed that they were a meaningful counter-measure to meaningful problems.

It is likely that your surgeons won’t accept your imposed checklists…and you will attempt to implement controls to enforce their use, leading to extra costs and much worker- management resentment.

Note that the American car manufacturers AND Toyoda (now Toyota) went to see Henry Ford’s revolutionary ‘River Rouge’ production plant at about the same time as each other (the 1920s)…but they were looking at the same thing through very different eyes and came out with very different observations (e.g. economies of scale vs. flow)…and the rest is history!

The best way to make meaningful and sustainable improvements is to always start from the perspective of the customer, see the customer’s value stream as a system, understand its purpose and provide an environment in which all the process performers and managers are intrinsically motivated to continually improve this system towards its purpose. And, to be clear, this (in part) requires the removal of any and all management instruments that do the opposite.

Whilst it might be useful to see what others are doing, perhaps to spark ideas, this shouldn’t be your starting point and neither should it be the end point. You should know what you are trying to achieve before you look, and you should (meaningfully) experiment before you implement.

Two quotes that apply here:

On tools: “A fool with a tool is still a fool” (Grady Booch); and

On environment: “People’s behaviour is a product of their system. It is only by changing [the system] that we can expect a change in behaviour.” (John Seddon)