Industrial Engineer Engineering and Management Solutions at Work

October 2012    |    Volume: 44    |    Number: 10

The member magazine of the Institute of Industrial Engineers

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Performance by Kevin McManus

Industrial Engineer’s monthly column about performance improvement (October 2012) 

The flawless and the fumblers

When I returned to school after six years of working, I chose an organizational development emphasis for my MBA degree. I thought learning about the soft side of people and work systems would help, and 25 years later I have no regrets.

I’ve seen how a “labor” or “management” group association affects daily process effectiveness. I witness the performance drain that a formal title and the need to respect such a title has on positive customer support decisions.

Today, I see people falling into one of two main groups – the flawless and the fumblers. Although they exist in any process improvement arena, I did not see these two groupings until recently, even though I have been doing this type of work for more than 30 years. You probably are familiar with their group norms and how they affect process performance and improvement.

The fumblers are the easiest to spot because their performance usually is monitored. They appear to make frequent mistakes, for why else would we ask them to count their mishaps each day? Fumblers work primarily on the front lines, as little evidence of daily process error is found away from the front lines.

The seemingly error-free flawless people work away from the front lines. Group membership is evidenced by a lack of personal process monitoring. They must produce flawless work, for why else would they rarely, if ever, be required to track their daily process errors. Members of the flawless group typically make more money per hour than fumblers do, but there is not a direct correlation between wage rate and human error rate. One becomes a member of the flawless group by default, by failing, either consciously or subconsciously, to see a need to capture the personal errors they make for the purpose of process improvement.

I have been a member of both groups. I have had jobs where my performance was tracked hourly, in terms of both output and error rates. I have also worked in jobs where my daily personal process transaction effectiveness seemed not to matter as long as the “big picture numbers” improved. I might have been expected to make – I mean, encourage – others to track their process performance data daily, but I was not expected to do the same by my flawless leaders. Obviously, I was then a member of the flawless group and a borderline measurement hypocrite at a minimum.

Today, I can say that going forward I will be a lifetime member of the fumblers group. In actuality, we all are. Few of us can go through even one day without making some type of process error. I don’t document each daily mistake, but I can give you a pretty good short list, prioritized by potential risk impact, without having to think about it too much. This has helped me make significant process improvements that reduce both current and future error potential. The fumblers group remains much too small, however. Too few processes are measured in a manner where key daily errors are tracked, trended and analyzed.

Extensive work system improvements cannot occur, let alone be accelerated, without converting current flawless people into fumblers. To make things worse, people in the flawless group fail to work with the fumblers to change process designs to reduce the potential for errors. Instead, “we” put more and more layers of pseudo-protection – like signs, vague policies and lectures – in place and hope fumblers do better. The more effective strategy is to recognize that every human makes mistakes, and best practice work system designs help minimize our intrinsic error potential.

We are all fumblers. Welcome to the club.

Kevin McManus is a performance improvement coach based in Rainier, Ore., and a 28-year member of IIE. He has written workbooks about personal and team effectiveness. McManus is an alumni examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Reach him at kevin@greatsystems.com.