Performance Improvement: The ‘Hard’ and The ‘Soft’ Side

Contributed by 2017 Conference Presenter, Wim Nijman

In a dialogue we had with Klaus Wittkuhn and Alexander Zoll about our presentation in Montreal, they suggested we start a blog about the topics we want to discuss with you. Our experience from similar conferences is that presentations are often one-directional, and subjects raised are often too broad to cover in depth.

We would like you to join and comment on our journey as we implement ideas/concepts working with clients, the insights we get from these experiences, the pitfalls we encounter, and the questions that arise–sometimes more than solutions, in our view.

In Montreal we will present a case study of a project that is successful in different respects. We will outline the approach and specifications of the concept we used till now in six blogs we will publish every two weeks starting with this one.

Performance Improvement: The ‘Hard’ and The ‘Soft’ Side

Our first experience with a performance-based project in our newly founded company, AICON Impact, was a mayor learning experience. After the CEO gave us the assignment, we performed a business analysis that made the need for an intervention very clear. There was a critical decline in both turnover and profit in the organization.

For the business analysis, we used a digital questionnaire based on the ‘Nine Performance Variables’ of Geary Rummler and Allan Brache[1], resulting in a number of obvious problems that were validated in sessions with the staff. In addition to logistical problems that caused waste, and especially delivery complaints by customers, it turned out that there was hardly any trust between the different departments (and their department leaders).

The management team accepted these assessment results and we decided to intervene with a team building activity, starting with the Logistics Department. The employees were enthusiastic about this intervention and there were initiatives to address problems. Management, however, was not convinced that performance improved, despite demonstrable improvement in delivery times and inventory management.

 After some time passed, it became clear in discussions with Management about project progress, that the management team members were not in agreement about the cause of the problems in their organization. There appeared to be no mutual trust and openness about the root cause of the problems. It became increasingly clear that we were to assume the problems were caused by employees and were not originating at management level. Since we did not see the situation this way, we decided not to continue and severed our relationship with the client. Based on the lack of trust and openness, there was no partnering possible.

From that moment on, we have adhered to the following principles.

  1. Start with the management team: avoid the uphill fight

Before starting an organization-wide assessment, we work with the client’s management team to get a clear picture of the results they would like to realize.

The way this is organized is as simple as it is meaningful: observation of their meetings. Our purpose is to get an in-depth picture of the:

  • Focus on results
  • Way participants perceive the mission/vision and goals of the organization; the ‘Why’
  • Clarity of decisions–for participants and the organization as a whole
  • Consensus within the client’s management team
  • (Last but not least) trust in that team.

The client and the management team, in our experience, do not always welcome this approach though it is rather easy to sell. References are very helpful in such situations.

  1. Trust and openness in organizations: a reflection of the management

As mentioned, mutual trust in teams is one of the most important features of an efficient and effective organization. We use two tools for building and obtaining trust in teams: Patrick Lencioni’s concept ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’[2] and ‘The Birkman Personality Assessment’[3].

The latter gives the participants a fundamental picture of their personality traits, motives, strengths, and needs that build their perspectives. As Birkman states: “A good management team will want to resolve workplace issues in a manner that’s fair and reasonable to all parties involved. Try to see the problem from different angles while listening to and learning from management’s take on the situation”.

In our experience, during an intervention team members become more aware of their own and others’ perspectives and of their environment. This awareness leads to a broader understanding of behaviors, preferences, and individual solution choices, forming a critical support for an essential characteristic of a management team; increased mutual trust.

In our next blogs, we will address the following topics:

  1. Two lines of inquiry for launching projects. Inspired by the work of Geary Rummler, Don Tosti, and Roger Birkman, we developed an assessment that takes into account the ‘hard’ as well as the ‘soft’ side of an organization in an integrated concept.
  2. Why are we in business? The importance of Vision and Mission for guidance in day-to-day business.
  3. The struggle with Consequence Management. The impact of undesirable behavior on performance.
  4. The application of Jennings’ 70-20-10 approach to interventions. The continuous search for an intervention that brings value for the investment.
  5. How to handle complexity when you can’t unscramble scrambled eggs’? (With thanks to our friends from Tulser and Frabrizio Bocci).

[1] Rummler, G.A., & Brache, A.P. (1995). Improving performance: How to manage the white space on the organization Chart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Patric Lencioni (2012), The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

[3] The Birkman Method, Birkman International, Inc Houston