Posted by Arthur Paton ● October 20, 2016

How to Know if Performance Improvement Efforts Actually Worked

performance_improvement_hurdles.jpgWe do our professional best to create solutions that improve performance, but how do we know whether they actually do?

We may measure improved performance at the event where the performance solution is deployed. We may conduct an assessment of performance improvement later on, just to make sure it sticks. Then we move on to the next project.

Learning professionals must define ways to ensure the performance improvement remains in place, to sustain the business improvement our sponsors and stakeholders expect. Here are some common obstacles that may hide the fact that performance has not improved or is not sustained, and how we can overcome them.

Learning is Undermined by Other Agendas

“But they did it in class… why can’t they do it on the job?” Yes, our standards include analysis of the other five areas of the Six Boxes Model that can prevent performance. We should identify these in the analysis step and initiate conversations about changes in those areas before, or in parallel with, performance solutions. In practice, you will have a variety of these items that are not addressed at all, which lag the performance solution, or are actively hidden or denied.

Consider the case of the supervisor who will lose power or reputation when his/her people improve their performance. The supervisor will have diminished supervisory influence, and worse, the people who experienced the performance solution may now be more knowledgeable than the supervisor. That supervisor may require that workers use the old method or tool to protect his/her own interests. Managers in that situation are likely to offer support for your performance improvement project—even as they undermine it—until you go away.

Fortunately, you have a number of options to counter this. Start by forming your own internal army of supporters. Among the peers of the resisting people, you will have enlightened supporters; bring them on board as coaches, instructors, and process monitors to manage sustained use of the new performance. Likewise, enlist those resisting the change to ensure their voices are heard, including them among the coaches and instructors. This will allow them to keep their power and influence after the change. Finally, enlist your change management partners to identify those not ready for change, managing their roles and participation to bring them on board, and then migrate them to support of the new performance required.

Lacking Evidence to Prove Success

“Where is the evidence?” This is an all-too-common question after a performance improvement solution has been implemented. Typically, this weakness is not due to poor standards—with proper planning, it’s not terribly difficult to measure performance improvement. Proving that a performance solution works is easy; the challenge often arises with proving benefits to the business, and it generally comes back to using the wrong metrics. Performance improvement professionals have Kirkpatrick methods and Brinkerhoff methods. We can provide hard data on how many performers stuck with the new performance, but that ultimately doesn’t mean much to business stakeholders, who are more interested in the resulting ROI.

View the On-Demand Webinar: Learning Leaders: Stop Overthinking ROI Let’s take a more business-friendly look at measuring performance improvement. Start by defining the Six Boxes data to determine what is working and what is not, and whether skills, knowledge, and behavior must change, or not. Again, most of the data collected is from the performance improvement specialist’s viewpoint. Rarely are the people in the business who are crying out for improvement ever consulted. The request is filtered and changed.

Fundamentally, when the business realizes it needs to be better at something or has declined in capability somewhere, that knowledge comes from some metric already being tracked—quality, cycle time, cost, yield, scrap—collected hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly. These are the metrics that business stakeholders use and trust, and you must ask your sponsor what they will look for in these metrics after the performance solution is in place. Ask what they expect to see changing. If they cannot tell you, this is a red flag that any metrics you provide will be irrelevant.

To identify what metrics should be used, talk with the operations, engineering, quality, or finance departments—they will be able to calculate the desired change, or they may create a metric from scratch to validate change success. This has two benefits. First, the sponsor and the operation have their own, regularly monitored metric to use to manage sustainable performance. Second, it is in their operational language—no converting or translating is necessary to understand the effect of the performance improvement.

Managers Aren’t Engaged with the Change

In most large organizations, mid-level managers are busy. They are told something needs to change, and their folks will be sent to “training.” They may or may not take an interest. When their people conclude the learning initiative, the manager or supervisor may not know how to support the change—it’s part of our job as performance improvement experts to help them help us. Create materials to inform these managers how to integrate the newly improved performance methods into their operation; in my former organization, we called these “management application guides.” We would send one to the manager of each participant, and we would give another copy to the participant to enable the conversation with their manager about what needed to be different after the training. This tool improved sustainability within departments from 15–20% to over 80%.

Sometimes, simply enabling the conversation is enough to sustain the change.

Arthur Paton is senior manager of global learning and development for Baxter Healthcare.

Watch the On-Demand Webinar: Human Performance vs. Training: What You Need to  Know

Topics: Performance Improvement