Sunday, June 30, 2013

Growing Deadwood in the Organization

“Were they dead when you hired them? Or did you kill them?* -  W. Edwards Deming

Who is responsible for the poor performers in an organization? These are the people about whom leaders regularly complain and blame for many of the company’s problems. According to Jack Welch, they are the 10% of the workforce who need to improve or be fired.

In most organizations, there are processes for documenting poor performance and terminating employment of the nonproducers, but very little for developing and helping these people improve. It is fairly uncommon, though, for organizations to hold the leader accountable for hiring poorly or failing to help the poor performers on his or her team.

Leader as Teacher

In his book, Getting the Right Things Done: A Leader’s Guide to Planning and Execution (Lean Enterprise Institute), Pascal Dennis presents his list of Lean Mental Models to describe the methods and behaviors of lean leaders. One of the mental models is Leader as Teacher which describes a lean leader as one who continually develops the ability of team members to identify and solve problems to improve the organization’s performance.

Developing talent is one of those things that most people would agree is a part of effective leadership but how many organizations truly hold their leaders responsible for doing it? When managers complain about a team member, it should be viewed as a reflection on their leadership capabilities and used as a coaching opportunity to improve.

I have found that, in many organizations, the responsibility to coach and develop talent is much lower on the list of priorities than documenting and replacing the poor performers. This is surprising when one considers what it costs the organization to hire, train, and fire employees. In my experience, this type of situation generally results from a lack of knowledge of how to develop people and/or impatience (or short-term thinking).

Instituting Leadership

In Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming wrote, “The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.” One of the areas Deming felt was in need of transformation was the poor track record and lack of personal accountability of leaders to coach and develop team members.

So what do we need to institute leadership within organizations? One step is to address the culture and systems related to team member development. Like much of organizational transformation, it is not easy, but there are five steps that can help jumpstart the process.
  1. Make it difficult to fire someone for performance issues.
    When it is easier to coach and develop “poor performers” than to fire them, leaders will begin to find the time to coach rather than just give up and remove the person from the organization. One of the roles of Human Resources should be to help the leader work with the person to develop his or her abilities or find another role in the organization that would be a better fit for the person’s talent and abilities.
  2. Recognize terminations as a failure of the system.
    A decision is made to hire someone because one or more people feel the candidate is a good fit for the organization and the specific job. When it doesn’t work out, we need to look at the hiring process to understand why it failed and what needs to be done to prevent if from happening next time. Defects within the hiring process are costly to the company and, as with any process, continual improvement is required.
  3. Establish systems and support for team member development.
    Transformation will not happen by merely telling leaders to start coaching and developing those on their team. Leaders must be taught how to coach, and the proper systems and structure must be available to support the process.
  4. Make it clear that developing team members is a responsibility of leadership.
    Leaders must be held accountable for developing the people on their team and understand that coaching and mentoring it is a condition of remaining in a leadership position within the organization.
  5. Promote based on leadership abilities.
    Promotion into a leadership position must be based on the person’s existing or potential leadership capabilities, including the ability to coach and develop the talents of others. Too often, promotions into leadership are based on personal preference or a person’s performance in a current position rather than the ability to lead others.
Besides showing respect for people, placing a high priority on coaching and development will help the organization improve performance by reducing turnover, improving morale, and engaging more people in improvement efforts. Like any element of transformation, though, success requires clarity, consistency, and the patience to stay with the effort.
*I remember hearing Dr. Deming say something like this during one of his 4-day seminars but couldn’t remember the exact quote Thanks to Garold L. Markle ( for the wording.