Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Goal setting and 'zero error'

I came across this interesting situation in a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) company. The issue was with 'target setting' for a team that was doing transaction processing kind of work. These were reasonably important transactions and errors could have a significant adverse impact on customer satisfaction. However,this process involved a lot of manual intervention and error rates were quite high. The problem was 'what sort of accuracy targets' should be set for the team.

The head of the division was of the firm opinion that the target should always be 100% accuracy (or zero error). His reasoning was 'how can we plan for making an error'? (i.e. If we set the target as 99% accuracy, aren't we telling the agents that they can afford to make one mistake in every 100 transactions? Won't that make them complacent? How can we tell the customer that we are targeting anything less than perfection?). This also lead to initiatives like declaring an 'error-free' month. This involved giving a pep talk to the team and making them take a pledge that they won't make any mistakes for one month. The pep talk also included another very interesting line of reasoning: "Can't you do one transaction without error? If you can do that what prevents you from repeating the same 1000 times? This is all that is needed to make an 'error-free' month". So this 'error-free' month initiative was launched with a lot of hype. Sadly, the error rates increased during the 'error-free' month.

One key issue here was that while the above approach had a lot of 'intuitive' appeal, it went against the basic principles of goal setting. To be motivating, the goals/targets have to be challenging and achievable. As the process involved a large amount of human element/manual intervention, zero error was impossible. So a 'zero-error target' would only de-motivate the employees (as they are ‘guaranteed to fail’ sooner or later). So the solution was to set a target (demanding but achievable target) keeping in mind the current capability of the team, improve the process/team capability and raise the performance bar/targets accordingly(ensuring that the targets remain demanding but achievable). At rhetoric level, the key is to distinguish between a 'performance target for the current performance period' and an 'ideal that we aspire for'.

Another aspect here is the limitations imposed by ‘diminishing returns’ and ‘process entitlement’. Each process has a performance limit (entitlement) beyond which its performance can't be significantly improved without redesigning the process. Processes that have a lot of manual intervention tend to reach this limit much before the level of 100% accurate performance. So unless the process is 'redesigned' (e.g. automated) very high performance targets would be impossible. Also when the performance level approaches the current 'process entitlement' limit, 'return-to-effort' ratio for performance improvement efforts (without redesigning the process) tends to fall drastically. So performance improvement beyond a certain point might cost too much, may be even more than what the customer is willing to pay!

It is interesting to note that this argument holds good (at least at the system level and organizations are systems) even for the most sensitive cases like surgeries. Obviously no one wants to have (or even think about the possibility of ) a botched up surgery. But if the cost of moving from 99.5% success rate to 99.9% success rate would make the surgery unaffordable to almost everyone, it might not really be helpful. Of course, this doesn't in any way mean that the surgeon plans to fail in 0.5% of the surgeries. The surgeon puts in utmost effort to make every surgery successful. It just means that a hospital will still pay the surgeon his/her salary (and people will still come in for surgery) even if there is a small % of failures!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

HR professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder

Encyclopedia Britannica defines multiple personality disorder as follows:

'Dissociative identity disorder, formerly called multiple personality disorder is a rare mental disorder in which two or more independent and distinct personality systems develop in the same individual. Each of these personalities may alternately inhabit the person's conscious awareness to the exclusion of the others. Usually the various personalities differ markedly from one another in outlook, temperament, and body language.'

I have noticed a similar phenomenon among HR professionals. The difference is mainly that it is fairly common (and not 'rare' as the above definition says). It is more commonly seen among those HR professionals who have taken their behavioral science education seriously. I talking about those folks who (even after working for many years in HR) still remember the behavioral science theories/principles that they have learned. Though a college degree per se might not have any direct impact on the level of knowledge of a person, it is often observed that having a MBA/MA in HR/behavioral science makes one more prone to this disorder. Of course, the most severely affected are those who have a pursued doctoral level studies and then (for some 'strange' reason) started working in internal HR.

The behavioral manifestation of this disorder is something like this:

During most of their time in office 'Personality 1' (let us call it P1, the dominant personality) is in operation. This involves carrying out their job related activities in a manner that does not reflect application of behavioral science theories/principles in any significant way.

Once in a while another personality (let us call it P2) surfaces. When this happens the HR professional gathers other HR professionals in the team, gets into a meeting room and talks about behavioral science principles/theories and their implications for HR practices. It can lead to discussions such as 'does our performance management system reflect principles of distributive justice' , 'do the models that are used in our leadership training programs have empirical validity' etc. This makes everyone feel nice and also enable them to feel that they are 'superior' to those who have 'wandered into HR without any behavioral science background'.

True to the nature of the disorder, P2 vanishes as soon as one gets back to day-to-day HR work and P1 takes over. Of course there are other avenues for P2 to surface including HR conferences, seminars etc. By the way, blogs might also provide an opportunity for P2 to surface !!!

There could be many more personalities (P3, P4,....,Pn) involved and some of them could even be placed in the continuum between P1 and P2. One such personality involves identification and implementation of 'best practices'.

Now let us go back to Britannica and look at the causes of this disorder. Britannica says

'Dissociative identity disorder is widely viewed as resulting from dissociative mental processes—i.e., the splitting off from conscious awareness and control of thoughts, feelings, memories, and other mental components in response to situations that are painful, disturbing, or somehow unacceptable to the person experiencing them. The failure to form a distinct personality can thus be seen as a way of coping with or escaping from inner conflict.'

I think that this more or less holds good in the case of HR professionals also. If we analyse the day-to-day activities performed by HR professionals in most of the companies, we would find that many of these activities do not require any great amount of behavioral science knowledge (at least in the way they are 'usually' carried out). This might be true even for senior positions. If we take out the hype, many of these activities might get reduced to 'getting forms filled-up'. Of course 'facilitation' is required, 'alignment' as to be maintained, the target population includes senior leaders, and the form filling is enabled by fancy IT systems (i.e. the 'form filling' happens online supported by an automated work flow and the system also enables monitoring, collation/aggregation and even built-in budgets). While this is useful work, this could create 'painful, disturbing, or unacceptable' situations (mentioned above) for the the HR professional who wants to 'make a big difference/contribution' by leveraging his/her behavioral science training. Again, similar to the 'painful early childhood experiences' that lead to the development of personality disorders, 'painful early career experiences' could contribute to the development of 'personality disorders in HR professionals'. Most obvious case is that of an HR MBA, who after taking up an HR job (often with unrealistic expectations) finds that his/her attempts to bring behavioral science knowledge into day-to-day work meets with inertia, indifference, resistance and even ridicule.

Similar to that in the case of multiple personality disorder, the treatment for 'HR personality disorder' should also involve integrating the disparate personalities back into a single and unified personality. Of course, this 'integration' itself is a complex topic (that require a much more elaborate discussion than what is possible here). Again, as in the case of treating multiple personality disorder, it is an important step to make the personalities aware of one another. That is exactly the purpose of this post!!!

Related Links : See related posts here, here, here and here

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

At the receiving end of 'change management'

If one looks at the job description of any 'strategic' HR position, it is highly likely that 'management of change' (or 'driving change initiatives') would feature very prominently. While I fully agree that organization-wide change management efforts are important in fast changing business environment, I am finding that my interest these days is more on the the psychological process of dealing with change (the 'transition') and on developing change resilience in individuals. Having been 'at the receiving end of organization level change management efforts' many times in my career, I am not sure as to what extent these are really effective. Often they degenerate into communication programs (at best) and con games (at worst). Unless the organization can create a credible value proposition ('what is in it for me') for the impacted people the chances are that the above degeneration would happen. It can also been argued that 'second order change' can not be managed (in the usual meaning of the term 'manage'). In this context, helping the employees to become more change resilient becomes more important.

I also feel that the impact of change on the 'psychological contract' between the employee and the employer is often not given adequate attention. The violation of the psychological contact could be one of the key reasons for 'change resistance' and negative outcomes like attrition, lack of motivation etc. Often employees feel that they are 'taken for granted' in the name of 'flexibility' and 'organization responsiveness'. Of course, organizations have sound business reasons for making these changes (realignment, restructuring etc.). My point is just that often the impacted employees (who have been 'realigned') feel that the psychological contract has been violated because of what they perceive as 'unilateral changes made by the organization'. (See a related link here)

Coming back to the 'HR job description' mentioned at the beginning of this post, there could be additional factors (apart from skill set related factors) that limit the ability of internal HR professionals to manage change. For example, often HR professionals get involved too late. By that time 'emotional wounds' have already been created and what is left is more of communication and 'dressing of wounds'. While this is useful, this is not change management. This is more of 'damage control'. Of course, in many situations the internal HR professionals themselves are experiencing the same adverse effects of change and hence this could further limit their ability to carry out their 'change management responsibilities'.

Note : Another related aspect (to organization-wide change efforts) is 'culture change initiatives'. There are many 'levels of culture' (like artifacts, norms, values, basic underlying assumptions etc.) at which an intervention can be made. Technically speaking, to be fully effective, culture change has to happen at the 'basic underlying assumptions' level (as per Schein's model). This would mean that 'culture change' has to happen in a bottom-up fashion (starting with the individual) as these assumptions reside in people's minds. However, the difficulty is that often a clinical intervention is required to surface and change these assumptions. This is usually too much to manage in the context of an organization-wide change effort. I think that the 'basic underlying assumptions' & 'world view' of a person are unlikely to change unless he/she is faced with a very significant event (often a traumatic event) in life. So it might not be realistic to make an intervention at this level in the context of an organization level change. Anyway, since one is likely to change many jobs during one's career, one can't afford to get influenced by organizations at such a deep level!!!

May be what can be attempted is to create a rational reason for behavior change. This does not necessarily mean 'carrot-and-stick' in the usual meaning of the term. The 'reason' could be aimed at any level in the hierarchy (e.g. Maslow's hierarchy) of human needs (including esteem and self-actualization) and not just at the lower level needs. This would also mean creating a context (including 'role models') where the desired new behavior has a higher possibility of emerging and thriving.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Of shibumi, areté and personal excellence

I have been working on developing a 'Personal Excellence Model'. Though I have used the term 'model', this is more of a personal exploration of 'excellence’(i.e. what excellence means to me). It is based on what has worked for me (and those ideas have resonated most strongly with my being) so far in my life. So this 'model' (or at least the thought process that lead to it) is quite ‘personal’ in nature though the model per se could be applicable to others. Of course the model is an evolving entity and it would change as I gain more data points(experiences, ideas etc.). While I don't want (at this point) to get into the details of the model like the structure, key elements ('meaning', 'living' and 'uniqueness' ), sub-elements etc., the objective of this post is to explore some of the key concepts/ideas that have influenced my definition of excellence.

One such idea is the Greek concept of areté. Though this word is often translated as 'virtue', it actually means something closer to 'being the best you can be', or 'reaching your highest human potential'. Areté is frequently associated with bravery, but more often, with effectiveness. The man or woman of areté is a person of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties to achieve real results. Areté involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans. Thus, being my best self and realizing my human potential is a key part of my definition of excellence.

Another such concept is 'shibumi' that I had once mentioned on this blog. While there are many interpretations on what shibumi means(see a related link here), I am using it here mainly in the sense of 'great refinement underlying commonplace appearances'. The other interpretations of shibumi that appeal to me include 'simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty', 'articulate brevity', 'understated beauty', 'tranquility that is not passive', 'being without the angst of becoming' , 'authority without domination, 'harmony in action', 'invisible excellence', 'effortless effectiveness', 'beautiful imperfection' and 'elegant simplicity'. Concepts like 'flow' and 'being in the zone' have some commonalities with 'shibumi' though they are not the same. From this discussion, the similarities between shibumi and 'simplicity at the other side of complexity'(which is the theme for this blog) are quite obvious. No wonder I like the concept of shibumi very much (another contributing factor here could be my INTJ MBTI profile) !

Apart from areté and shibumi another key underlying theme for my definition of excellence is the emphasis on 'presence of value' rather than on 'absence of defects'. Thus 'goodness and authenticity' are preferred over 'correctness'. One interesting aspect that is common across all the three underlying themes mentioned above is that they all imply internal benchmarks. May be that is the way it should be since here we are talking about a 'personal excellence' model as opposed to a 'standard success' model !!!