Problem solving for performance issues

What are the most common yet challenging problems for managers to address? It's not material shortages, as-built discrepancies or even weld defects. It's not even customer complaints. The most common and challenging problems faced by foremen, supervisors and managers are employee performance problems. Everyone tries to hire the best employees, but many times these seemingly good employees mess up!

What are the most common yet challenging problems for managers to address? It's not material shortages, as-built discrepancies or even weld defects. It's not even customer complaints. The most common and challenging problems faced by foremen, supervisors and managers are employee performance problems. Everyone tries to hire the best employees, but many times these seemingly good employees mess up!

There are countless performance problems in any company, and the construction industry seems to be blessed with an extra serving. Examples include: not doing a material take-off correctly; not getting the payroll out on time; showing up late for work and productivity going way down.

How do we deal with performance problems? Usually we handle them too late and very poorly! Most managers avoid the problem, hoping it will resolve itself. Finally, it festers above the level of pain, and then action happens.

If the employee is a collective bargaining employee covered under some defined procedure, we follow that procedure and work to rid ourselves of this nightmare. If the employee is not union, we usually free up their future as soon as possible and begin the search for a replacement.

Many times we get caught in a vicious cycle. We work hard to hire good employees. They seem to perform OK for a while, and then problems start. Eventually we let him or her go, and the cycle starts again.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming often said most problems are not caused by employees but are due to poor processes and systems.

The following approach is useful for dealing with employee problems. Try it out on your next problem. It is based on the assumption that people want to perform and need some guidance and support. It also assumes that the employee and manager need to work together to address the problem. The manager may need to provide additional training or reexamine policies. The employee will need to commit to a plan to improve. Here are the guidelines:

Preparation

The manager needs to gather enough information about the performance problem so he can speak with facts, not hearsay evidence. Set up a meeting where both manager and employee can discuss the problem with enough time to go through the process. This usually will take a half- to a full hour and should always be done in private. The manager should plan the agenda and review the key points mentioned below before the meeting, but go into the meeting with an open mind.

The meeting

Describe the problem or discrepancy in performance. Discuss what should be done compared to what is being done. Identify when and where the problem first occurred. Review the source of information, complaint, etc. Verify the problem (what is happening) with the employee.

Do not attack the person, but rather describe the problem in terms of what is wrong, not who is wrong. This lays the foundation for the discussion to follow.

Agree a problem exists

Discuss the effects of the problem. Identify its impact to the organization (quality, low morale, customer dissatisfaction). Discuss this impact with the employee and the likely consequences (to the employee) if performance does not improve. It is critical that the employee agrees that there is a problem and clearly understands the consequences of continued poor performance.

Ask for the employee's help

Management and the employee need to work together to help the employee perform correctly. Management must commit to help, and the employee needs to commit to improve performance. Ask for the employee's commitment.

Determine if the employee could perform if he or she wanted to

Has he ever done the task or job right? If the employee has never performed the work right, then there is a skill or knowledge deficiency. The solution is to provide training and skills development.

If the employee has performed it correctly in the past, find out when and what changes have occurred that keep him or her from doing it now. Remove the barriers.

If the employee has performed correctly in the past, is the skill used often enough to remain in practice? If not, how frequently is it used? How often does it need to be used to stay in practice? Arrange for more practice.

If it is not a skill issue, does the employee know when he or she has performed correctly?

How does the employee know? If the employee does not know, arrange for timely feedback.

If the employee can do the task correctly and knows when it is done right, the cause must be in the execution. Are there obstacles that prevent the employee from doing the job correctly, such as a lack of time, authority and tools? If yes, remove these obstacles.

Is the employee punished when the job is performed correctly? For example, if a project manager is able to take over a failing job and turn it around so that it breaks even, he may be assigned all the bad projects. He is punished by never getting a profitable project. If this is the case, discover how and remove the punishments.

Is the employee rewarded with prestige or status when the job is performed incorrectly? For example, a PM may get rewarded for bringing in a job on schedule, but he did it by working around the system and creating havoc with last-minute orders to the fab shop. The customer may be happy, but the support departments are burned up. If there are cases where the employee gets rewarded for doing things wrong, discover how and remove the rewards.

Does the employee see the consequences to the company for his desirable and undesirable behavior? Discuss and arrange for the employee to understand the negative results for poor behavior.

Agree on possible solutions

Once we have identified the root cause of poor performance, we need to agree on the actions to be taken and when. It is most important to have the employee identify the actions he/she will take. The manager should not just tell him. The manager also needs to identify the actions he or she will take and when.

Set a follow-up date

Establish a review process and set the next date for review. This ensures better accountability for both the manager and employee. Dates are critical in construction and in performance improvement as well. The frequency of meeting depends on the nature of the actions to be taken. Some situations, such as correct time reporting, may need to be reviewed every day or after a week. Other problems, such as how a foreman talks with a customer, may require a monthly review.

Document the agreements, actions and dates and jointly sign the document

This doesn't have to be a typed document, just a record of what was covered in the meeting. The attached form can be handwritten.

If a manager will take the time to discuss these issues and will really listen to what the employee has to say, he will discover some surprising information. Often, the employee is actually trying to do a good job, but needs some help. Getting a commitment and following up usually will lead to improved performance. If it doesn't, then further exploring may be necessary. After three strikes, the ultimate consequences for poor behavior need to be put into action.

Most employees do not wake up each day planning to go to work and perform poorly. We all want to do a good job. Using this approach will help managers see how to help their best employees remain their best employees. For those few employees who don't care about doing a good job, this approach can weed them out and document that an honest effort was made to help.

Dennis Sowards is an industry consultant. His company is Quality Support Services and can be reached at [email protected] or at 480/835-1185.

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