Are You Doing Fundamental Performance Improvement, Or Are You Working Too Hard?

by Stacey Barr |

Improve performance by increasing fitness, not force, in producing the results you’re measuring and improving.

Square wheel to round wheel illustrating a fundamental performance improvement. Credit:

This is a term that, as far as I am aware, I made up: fundamental performance improvement. It’s a type of performance improvement that possesses a quality unlike and far superior to the kind of improvement most people try to do.

A fundamental performance improvement is a change made once, that causes a significant improvement in performance that lasts without any further effort.

When you make a fundamental performance improvement, you make one change to boost the fitness of the system, and performance will take care of itself henceforth. Do not try to improve performance by force, where you have to keep trying hard to hit targets each month.

Evidence of fitness in PuMP is one action that resets the central line in a KPI’s XmR chart. But typically we see force, where a team has to give extra effort every month to push the measure values as high as possible.

Performance improvement by force…

Imagine a help desk team within the information services division in an organisation. Their manager copped an earful at the monthly management meeting about how long everyone throughout the organisation has to wait until their problems get solved by the help desk team. So the manager declares to the team to do whatever it takes to resolve problems faster. In fact, they are now given the target of resolving 95% of problems within 24 hours. That should motivate them, thinks the manager.

What do they do? How do they improve performance to hit that target? At first, they feed off motivation and just work faster for a while. When the motivation wears off, they work into their breaks and after hours. When they can’t add any more work hours, they start to cut corners, and ‘forget’ to capture the harder problems in the help desk system, or close off unsolved problems if the 24 hour window won’t be met.

This is not fundamental performance improvement. This is compensating for a business process that is incapable of delivering the level of performance asked of it.

Performance improvement by fitness…

Now imagine, instead, that the manager sat down with the help desk team and flowcharted the problem resolution process with them, capturing the way it actually truly honestly happens. And imagine that the team looked at that as-is flowchart and talked about where it’s weak. Perhaps they see that there is no step where they can share fixes and solutions with each other. Or perhaps they see for the first time just how much red tape there is in resolving any but the easiest of problems. Perhaps they discover they are each using different problem diagnostic techniques.

Imagine that they decide to redesign their problem resolution process, to share fixes and solutions with each other, to remove red tape and to standardise on the best diagnostic technique. And that almost immediately they see they are resolving problems faster and catching up on the unresolved backlog. They’re not working any harder, in fact it feels easier. Their resolution accuracy is better. Their customers stop complaining.

It’s not a fundamental improvement if you have to work harder…

This is a fundamental performance improvement: a change made once, which, from that point forward, elevates performance without any further effort. It’s also known as “work
smarter, not harder” and ” sharpen the saw”. And in systems thinking, that’s called leverage:

The bottom line of systems thinking is leverage – seeing where actions and changes in structures can lead to significant, enduring improvements. Often, leverage follows the principle of economy of means: where the best results come not from large-scale efforts but from small well-focused actions. Our nonsystemic ways of thinking are so damaging specifically because they consistently lead us to low-leverage changes: we focus on symptoms where the stress is greatest. We repair or ameliorate the symptoms. But such efforts only make matters better in the short run, at best, and worse in the long run. – Peter M. Senge, “The Fifth Discipline

The only thing that stops most people, in my observations, from making fundamental performance improvements, is excuses like being too busy.

This is a fundamental performance improvement: a change made once, which, from that point forward, elevates performance without any further effort. [tweet this]

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  1. Ian says:

    This is a subject clodse to my heart.
    Everything in life is process driven, even our daily lives.
    When joining a new company the first thing I do is develop a good working relationship with all the key stakeholders and gain an understanding of what their frustrations are and what prevents them from being more productive.
    From there I look at all the processes and what causes obstacles and roadblocks.
    Set up metrics to measure productivity and improvements and then make changes to process measuring the success along the way.
    Have regular face to face meetings with the stakeholders to gauge their acceptance of the changes and what effect the changes are making to their work and job satisfaction.

    Always treat the cause and not the symptom.

  2. Bob Frost says:

    Good point, you and I see this matter of leverage exactly alike. You may recall that several years ago you were kind enough to review my first little book, Measuring Performance, and say very nice things about it. In it, pages 46-47 outlined three stages of Gaining Leverage over Performance— process management is Stage 2 of the three stages. You can find that page here:
    The chapters that follow this page say more. You might want to mention sometime soon that Capability Management is Stage 3, the next stage in gaining leverage over performance.
    You are doing great work; best wishes for continued success.
    Bob Frost, Measurement International

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Bob it’s lovely to hear from you again! Thank you so much for sharing the reminder of your great book, and also the link. My favourite sentence on that page is this one:

      “By measuring and managing a work process, you alter all the future results produced by that process.”

      That’s exactly what I mean by fundamental performance improvement.

  3. Teodoro says:

    The manager didn´t tell them to analize the process and look for improvement opportunities, nor did he empowered them to make improvements.
    So they worked to meet the target. Hardly Fundamental Performance Improvement.
    That´s the problema with targets!

  4. […] Are You Doing Fundamental Performance Improvement, Or Are You Working Too Hard? […]

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