Monday, February 22, 2010

Function Assessment: A Basis For Improvement

Since becoming a consultant, I have had a number of companies ask for help evaluating an individual function or department.  Whether following an acquisition or a change in executive leadership, the desire for an objective assessment of one or more functions has become a fairly common occurrence for companies.

In an effort to help with the process, I though I'd provide my basic approach for assessing the effectiveness of a department, function or team.  The process can truly help with a company's internal issues, but must be done by an objective person who is not related in any way to the department being evaluated.  Open and honest communication is a necessary component of the process, so it is vital that those involved feel that the person conducting the assessment does not have a personal interest in the outcome or the process will fail to achieve positive results.

It is absolutely essential to keep the process focused on improvement.  Sticking to an improvement theme will help to the level of stress and resentment of those working in the function.  The fact that you are dealing with human beings, however, will make it impossible to completely eliminate the distrust that is certain to exist.  For this reason, it is important to spend time upfront - and throughout the process - clarifying your objectives and attempting to put those you are working with at ease.

Are Expectations Clear?

The first step in the evaluation of a particular function is to determine the level of consistency between the expectations from the organization's senior leaders and those of the local or department leaders.  In many cases, I find that a gap in expectations is the cause of most of the problems.  Improving a situation like this often involves improving communication through increased one-on-one meetings with the functional manager and/or formalizing some sort of personal planning process that documents objectives, planned actions in support of the objectives, and status of the actions.

Assessment Areas

After gaining an understanding of the degree of alignment between the expectations of the senior leaders and the functional manager, it is time to begin looking at other aspects of functional performance in order to gain a better understanding of the opportunities for improvement.

As mentioned above, it is extremely important to approach the assessment from the perspective of improvement rather than attempting to determine if anyone should be promoted, demoted, or fired.

With this in mind, the areas to investigate for improvement opportunities are as follows:
  1. How is the team organized?  Centralized or decentralized?  What is the reporting structure inside and outside of the department?  How consistent is the structure with the organization as a whole?
  2. What systems are utilized by the function?  Are the systems integrated?  Is the information timely and accurate?  Does it provide the type of information that will help the team meet expectations?
  3. What type of measures are utilized by the function and how well do they describe performance in relation to expectations?
  4. How well is the team performing with regard to the measures in place?  How do the functional managers and team members  feel about the department's performance?
  5. Has the organization clearly defined its values?  If so, have the functional leaders been assessed to determine that they possess and operate in accordance with the values?
  6. Which areas of the company does the function support?  How well are the function's objectives aligned with the needs of these areas?  Do team members focus on meeting the needs of those in the areas the function supports?
  7. How do those in the areas served by the function feel about the level of service they receive?
  8. Is there an active process for training and development of team members and the functional managers?  How consistent is this with the rest of the organization?
Additional questions are added based on the specific area being assessed.

Assessment Results

This is not the type of assessment that lends itself to a purely question-and-answer format.  The information must be gathered and processed through a series of interviews and discussions with individuals and groups related to the function.

Staying as objective as possible requires understanding and communicating how well the function supports the objectives of the organization, as a whole.  With this in mind, it may be necessary to point out when objectives drive focus on departmental results at the expense of organization results (which is a fairly common situation).

Because of the people issues related to assessment and improvement, it is not always easy to effectively evaluate a function.  Remember, however, that your job is to help the organization improve, and if you avoid the difficult issues, you will have little change of fulfilling your responsibility.

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