90% of Performance Problems are in the Processes, not the People

by Stacey Barr |

I’m often asked how to measure people. Managers, executives and human resource professionals all want to know how to cascade company goals to individuals, and put measures in their performance agreements. It’s the toughest question I am ever asked, because my answer isn’t what they want to hear.

Smiles, Stacey.

The way that I learned that 90% of the problems are in the process and not the people was through training in Six Sigma, Total Quality Management and other process improvement methods in general.

The quality movement of the 1950’s and onwards was led by W. Edwards Deming, ‘the Father of Quality’. Deming had a lot to say around the topic of measuring people (I’ve included some links to my own articles on some of these topics):

“The ranking of people indicates abdication of management”

“Ranking creates competition between people, salesman, teams, divisions.”

“…management by numerical goal is an attempt to manage without knowledge of what to do, and in fact is usually management by fear.”

“Whenever there is fear, you will get the wrong figures.”

“Eliminate numerical quotas, including Management by Objectives.”

“People work in the system. Management creates the system.”

“The worker is not the problem. The problem is at the top! Management!”

“A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management.”

“Quality comes not from inspection, but from improvement of the production process.”

“By what method?… Only the method counts.”

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“When the system is stable, telling a worker about mistakes is only tampering.”

“Remove barriers to pride of workmanship.”

“Measurement without the opportunity to improve is harassment.”

And my personal favourites:

Evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review… The idea of a merit rating is alluring. The sound of the words captivates the imagination: pay for what you get; get what you pay for; motivate people to do their best, for their own good. The effect is exactly the opposite of what the words promise.”

“The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.”

This concept was very central to the ability of many organisations to make great progress on improving productivity, quality and financial performance. They focused on measuring and improving processes, and rather than treating employees as an asset to get a return from, they treated them as people. They gave them opportunities to learn and grow and apply their skill and creativity to collaboratively make the processes work better.

Now I want to ask you what you have noticed happens when you measure people to monitor how they perform. Be honest and comprehensive. Have you seen it truly work? I’ll bet you can’t produce any evidence that measuring people is the best way to reach company or organisational goals.

And besides that, if 90% of performance problems are in the process, wouldn’t you want to master the measurement of processes first, before worrying about measuring people?

Really? No measures of personal performance at all?

It’s not that you can’t measure a person’s performance. You can measure anything at all if you can frame it as an observable result. The contention I have is more about why you’d want to measure a person’s performance, and how you go about doing it. I detest the idea of treating someone like an organisational asset, something you are trying to control.

Managers should be collaborating with employees, not trying to force performance out of them.

But measures can help individuals to improve their personal performance, when those measures are chosen and used by the individual, not chosen and used by someone else to judge the individual. It’s simply a matter of the individual deciding what their goals or desired results are, in a work context, and how they’ll monitor them.



Read more about measuring individual performance, and take some time to ponder it’s real impact in your organisation, before assuming it’s necessary. Just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it works.


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  1. Kathryn Reed says:

    This is really interesting! Having worked for sometime in performance measurement, I definitely agree with the premise. Our large public sector organisation is focusing on cultural change at the moment, following some quite significant structural changes. One of the ideas I have been tasked with investigating is that of a feedback process, from all levels of the organisation, for leaders in how well they model desired behaviours. I will definitely incorporate your suggestion of a personal measurement, and do you have any advice for a ‘bottom up’ feedback mechanism?

    Thanks Stacey!


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