The 7 pillars of a good improvement process
25 maart 2020 

The 7 pillars of a good improvement process

Previously I wrote about the 3 most important mistakes regarding appraisal interviews. As one of the 3 most important mistakes regarding appraisal interviews, I mentioned that no (correct) action is taken if the employee does not (or no longer) function properly. With this blog I discuss the 7 pillars of a good improvement process. In a process of improvement I often see the same mistakes recurring. By observing the 7 pillars of a good improvement process, you can prevent these mistakes.

1. Always first determine the cause

The first pillar of a good improvement process is: always determine the cause first. I regularly see that a process of improvement is set in motion without first determining the cause of the problem. As I already explained in my blog about the 3 most important mistakes in appraisal interviews, the solution lies in the cause. Therefore it makes little sense to start working on a solution before the cause of the problem has been determined.

I consciously write the cause of the problem and not the cause of the non-performance. It also happens that it is wrongly concluded that there is insufficient functioning. I will clarify this with an example.

Imagine this. One of your employees does not succeed in completing his or her work on time. In that case, you can, of course, have that employee take a time management course. However, that only makes sense if the reason why your employee does not succeed in completing his or her work on time is poor time management. But what if this is not the cause at all?

Determine the cause

Suppose the cause is that your employee cannot delegate properly and as a result performs all kinds of tasks that other employees would have to carry out with the result that they cannot get round to their own work. In that case, your employee would not benefit from a time management course. Your employee will have to learn how to delegate. Suppose the cause is that there is too much work to complete on time. In that case, a time management course will not help your employee either. What’s more, there is no question of inadequate functioning at all.

This concerns only a few possible causes for the problem that your employee does not succeed in completing his or her work on time. There are several possible causes for almost every problem. It is always important to determine what is the cause of the problem in your case. After all, if you do not know the cause, it can take a long time before you succeed in solving the problem.

2. Identifying and tackling all problems

For a good improvement process, it is important to identify and address all problems. And not just the most annoying problem. Or the most annoying problems. It is a pitfall to only focus on what you experience as the most annoying at that moment. In that moment, it may feel as if you will be satisfied when that is remedied.

However, this is seldom the case. As soon as you have solved the most annoying problem or problems, you will start to see other and/or underlying problems as well. That is why it is important to identify all the problems at the beginning of the improvement process and tackle all the problems. An additional advantage of this is that it often also helps to determine the causes. Usually it is possible to discover a red line in the problems and the underlying causes.

3. Improving knowledge and skills

Insufficient functioning is often caused by insufficient knowledge and skills. However, I regularly see that the underperforming employee is only taught knowledge or skills. Usually there is too much focus on knowledge or too much focus on skills.

Too much focus on knowledge

I work a lot with highly intelligent and gifted people, such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, tax specialists, CEOs, senior bank employees and senior technicians and ICT professionals. I often see that they focus too much on knowledge. Of course it is important to constantly increase knowledge. However, without increasing skills, a discrepancy arises.

Then your employee does have a lot of knowledge, but insufficient skills to apply this knowledge effectively. On balance, this creates a situation that is comparable to the situation in which your employee would not have so much knowledge. This is because knowledge is great, but only if the person who has it succeeds in applying it effectively. This requires, for example, communication skills, conflict management, empathy, listening skills, persuasiveness, collaboration skills, writing skills and/or stress resistance. As an employee’s knowledge increases, so will the skills.

Without increasing skills, increasing knowledge generally makes little sense. Knowledge that cannot be applied effectively generally only leads to frustration. First of all with the employee himself. If this is not responded to properly, it often leads to frustration among colleagues, because the employee becomes difficult to maintain within a team.

Too much focus on skills

There are also organisations where the focus is too much on skills. For example, this happens regularly at non-profit institutions, government agencies and multinationals. For the mutual bond between colleagues, a focus on skills is a good thing. Without sufficient knowledge, however, performance lags behind. This can lead to a situation in which an employee who does not finish his work on time is helped by his colleagues, which means that, on balance, the work is finished on time. However, this does not solve the problem. It is masked.

Another problem that regularly arises within organisations with too much focus on skills is nepotism. It leads to organizations where all kinds of people are placed in positions for which they lack the capacities. That is disastrous for an organization. Especially when this has seeped through within the management layers of an organization.

Attitude and character

Sometimes the problem is not so much insufficient knowledge or skills, but the right (professional) attitude is lacking or your employee has a character that does not fit the job or organization well. It is possible to translate this into skills and focus on learning skills. If attitude or character is the problem, however, the chance of success of an improvement trajectory is significantly less. That is why it is better to take this into account when selecting your employees, so that you can prevent this type of problem as much as possible.

4. Listening well and asking open questions

It is incredibly important to listen carefully at all times. To your employee and to yourself. If you listen carefully to your employee and yourself, it is generally possible to successfully complete a process of improvement. Without this costing a lot of time. And often with huge profits for your employee, you and your organization.

Unconsciously you often know what the problems are and what causes them. Also your employee often knows this. However, you have often not formulated it in such a way that you are aware of it. And your employee has not formulated it in such a way that you have heard your employee say it. This requires good listening skills. However, good listening is very difficult. Especially if you disagree with the other person.

Real listening

If you disagree with your co-worker, you run the risk of not really listening to your co-worker, but only preparing your response to what your co-worker says. You also run the risk of filling in for your employee from what you know and know from other “comparable” situations. As a result, you are missing valuable information with which you could have mapped out the problems and ascertained the causes.

You also have to take into account that you are not listening to yourself. It strikes me that during conversations about an improvement trajectory I often hear both the employee and the manager say what the problems are and how they are caused without them noticing it themselves. Regularly they mention the solution to the problem themselves without being aware of it. They are often so busy talking that they do not listen to the other person, but also not to themselves.

Ask open questions

Not every employee is a talker. That is why it is not easy for every employee to obtain the required information. Therefore it is important to ask open questions. Where you really listen to the answer to the question. And ask questions if you do not yet have all the required information. Keep in mind that listening consists of more than just listening to words. It is also important to pay attention to body language and voice use. Especially when emotions and opinions are involved.

5. Taking responsibility for you own mistakes

It may not be the nicest thing to hear, but in general you have made one or more mistakes yourself if your employee is not functioning properly (anymore). Perhaps you did not do the selection properly and therefore did not hire the right person. You may not have created the right expectations. Or you have not clearly communicated your way of working. Maybe you have waited too long to talk to your employee about the insufficient functioning.

Waiting too long to speak to the employee

Waiting too long to talk to your employee about insufficient performance is one of the most common mistakes made. It is often observed that the employee functions inadequately, but it takes a long time before the employee is addressed. For example, because the employee does perform other parts of the job well and you therefore believe that you cannot miss the employee for the time being.

For example, you do not have to remember that you have to hire a new employee, because he or she still has to be found first and then worked in. Or – even worse – that certain tasks will fall to you, while you already have so many tasks on your plate.

Work better on your own

Maybe you are waiting to discuss insufficient functioning, because you hope that the employee will perform better on his or her own. Take it from me that an employee who does not perform well enough rarely performs better without addressing the employee. In general, you only make it more difficult for yourself by waiting to talk to your employee about the inadequate functioning. As is so often the case with things you would rather not do, it is also true for addressing an employee who does not function well that it is best to do this as soon as possible.

So do not wait too long before addressing your employee about non-performance. Try to make as few mistakes as possible yourself. But if you do make them, don’t pretend you don’t make mistakes. Take responsibility for mistakes you have made. And solve it. Everyone makes mistakes. It offers an opportunity to learn and to discover gaps within the function and organization. Take that opportunity. If you have not succeeded in improving the functioning of your employee, at least you have succeeded in improving your functioning and that of your organization.

6. Separating emotions and facts

Letting your employee know that he or she is not performing well (anymore) always brings about emotions. Regardless of the level at which your employee acts. Learn to deal with those emotions. Accept that those emotions are there. Give room for emotion, but keep it rational.

Treat your employee respectfully. Just as you would like to be treated in a similar situation. Or – if you find it difficult to imagine – how you would like your partner, your father, your mother, your son, your daughter or other loved one to be treated in a similar situation.

Fair chance

Your employee deserves a fair chance to improve his or her performance. Make it clear to him or her that this opportunity is given. That’s not easy. After all, your employee’s emotions make him or her distrust you. It is your task to remain rational. That may be difficult. Certainly if your employee has been underperforming for a long time, but you have waited a long time before addressing your employee about this. Then the boiling point for you may already have been reached. Bear in mind, however, that wiating so long is your fault and that your employee should not suffer as a result.

Don’t just say that your employee gets a fair chance, but actually give your employee a fair chance. Don’t start building a file in the hope that you can fire your employee. Start a process of improvement and make sure that this is recorded in such a way that if the improvement process does not succeed, you have a file with which you can fire your employee.

7. Draw up clear reports

The goal of the improvement process is to improve the functioning of your employee. However, if that goal is not achieved, it is important that you have the possibility to dismiss your employee. That is why it is important that you draw up a clear report of every conversation that takes place as part of the improvement process. Or have it drawn up.

The interview report should be clear to you, your employee and any other persons who were present during the conversations as part of the improvement process. So that it is clear what is expected from whom and your employee gets a fair chance to improve his or her performance. However, the report must also be clear to people who were not present at the interviews. After all, if the performance does not improve, the report will also have to be clear to those who decide upon dismissal, such as the judge(s).

Give your employee sufficient time to go through the report drawn up and possibly discuss it with an advisor, for example an employment law attorney. During a subsequent interview, ask your employee whether he or she has any comments and/or remarks on the report of the previous interview. Include any comments and/or remarks in the next interview report. Also record it if there are no comments and/or remarks. Have the reports signed by the employee. In this way, you avoid as much as possible having to hold all kinds of discussions in the unlikely event that it should not be possible to improve performance and you should proceed to dismiss.

Free intake interview

Do you want help to start a good improvement process and do you think I can help you with that? Then please contact me for a free, no-obligation intake interview or let me contact you about this. Then you can decide whether it would be useful for you if I can help you to start a good improvement process.

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