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March 15, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is In

Keepin’ on Track

The beautiful HR spouse Charlotte recently bought a birthday gift for me. It was something I’ve wanted since I was a child. (Actually, I still am a child, although that is a subject for another article.) The gift is being shipped from St. Louis via UPS.

UPS, as well as other "logistics" organizations, has harnessed the power of the World Wide Web to create online parcel-tracking services. In the case of my birthday present, this means that I could watch as the parcel left St. Louis and went to Earth City, Mo., then to Nashville, then to Doraville, Ga., then to Jacksonville, Fla., then to Orlando and finally to my front door in Coral Springs. I could watch the supply-chain movement, including knowing the exact time of the arrival and departure of the package at every "way point."

Being able to measure the performance of a process or an organization in a linear fashion is an amazing thing. It is hypnotic. It encourages the consumer to visit the company regularly to check the progress of the process and to see, in my case, where the package is, how it’s doing and when I might expect its delivery. It is even more valuable since, from the moment it was shipped, the tracking included an estimated arrival date. Not only could I watch the performance, but I could watch the performance in relation to a pre-established goal. If there was a delay at any point, I would know it, and, if necessary, the goal could be modified to reflect an unexpected problem or perhaps an early arrival.

This is a spectacular tool for the customer as well as for the provider of the service. UPS is now able to engage the interest and involvement of the customer in a positive way. Assuming an overwhelmingly on-time delivery history, the organization can bring that history to life at an individual level with each customer.

Inside any organization, having measurements and goals, along with a tool for assessment, allows the organization to monitor its own performance and identify areas that need improvement or modification. Such a tracking tool is really a tool for organizational success. The more effective and engaging the tool is, the more valuable it will be to everybody concerned as a way to achieve desired outcomes. Tracking certainly can be, and is being, applied to public service as well.

From a human-resources standpoint, this is the concept we should be using when it comes to performance evaluations. For example, automated, online employee-performance evaluation makes the process much simpler and should allow for more rapid feedback to an employee. At the same time, it provides for more rapid intervention by management to recognize and appreciate great work or to counsel, coach and take corrective action when needed.

Making a relatively inexpensive tool, such as the "Performance Now" software, available for this purpose is within the financial capability of any public agency no matter how large or small. It can save time and, therefore, money and staff energy. Such outcomes make it well worth the investment.

Tracking of the performance of public-sector work as diverse as street maintenance, responsiveness to work orders, citizen inquiries, paramedic calls and law-enforcement responses are just a few areas where effective tracking, combined with goal-setting, can challenge employees and managers to excel and minimize taxpayer expenses.

There is no reason the same concepts cannot be applied to the purchasing process, warehouse-supply management, the handling of meals for hospitals or jails and hundreds of other applications. Having a goal-setting process and a tracking or monitoring system are essential ingredients to process improvement.

Despite being a regular consultant to various agencies, I’m sorry to report that a consultant is generally not required to create process improvements. The improvement process can be done, and perhaps can best be done, if driven locally from within an organization by the very people who deal with the process day-to-day.

However, there are several BOLO’s ("Be on the lookout!") and dangers in applying process improvements.

First, the approach itself can become mired in minutia and measurements not really important to anyone other than perhaps an auditor who may later attack outcomes. Selection of meaningful markers of success or markers of process flow must be done carefully and with input from those involved. As with getting your vision corrected by an optometrist, the prescription that is too intensely microscopic will harm your vision rather than improve it.

The second danger, perhaps the greatest danger, is that the monitoring process itself can become the focus of attention rather than the significant business practice. In the case of my own birthday present from Charlotte, following the travels of the gift could become more important than caring about the actual arrival date.

Finally, tracking for the sake of tracking, without caring about the results, is a useless exercise in bean counting. In the case of an improved performance-evaluation process, for example, if supervisors and managers are not committed to doing evaluations on time, in a way understandable and meaningful to the employee and in following through on praise or corrective action, it does not matter at all whether the process is paper intensive and done with a quill pen and ink well or rapid and online. A lack of caring or personal and organizational inertia will defeat the value of any process we come up with.

On the other hand, selecting meaningful measurements and creating milestones which can be effectively assessed by asking and answering the two powerful process questions ("How many? By when?") will make a public service or a private business more accountable and more successful.

Here’s hoping you stay on track!

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor

PS: Today is the day my birthday present is suppose to arrive. My faith in UPS will be shattered if it is late, but at least I will be able to know quickly, for better or for worse, just how late!


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