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Finding the Reasons an HVAC System Malfunctions Shows How to Improve Employee Job Performance

August 10, 2009
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The method an HVAC technician uses to find the reasons an HVAC system doesn’t operate properly teaches a valuable lesson about how to improve employee job performance. An effective HVAC technician conducts a diagnostic analysis to find the actual causes that exist in a particular situation and directs the analysis with an explanation of HVAC system functioning that identifies all the potential reasons for a malfunction. A technician finds the reasons a system doesn’t operate properly by asking a series of diagnostic questions about each potential cause, then making the observations required to answer each question. To save space, we’ll assume that electrical power is the only potential cause for the malfunction of an HVAC system. Given this potential cause, the diagnostic questions might include the following:

• Is there electrical power to the building?

• Is there power to the thermostat?

• Is the thermostat set to off or to operate the system?

• Is the thermostat operating properly?

As the technician makes observations relevant to each diagnostic question, some of the potential causes of the HVAC system’s failure to operate properly are eliminated. By answering a comprehensive set of relevant diagnostic questions, an effective HVAC technician finds all the causes that are operating in a particular situation.

While this example is simplified, it accurately represents how an effective technician finds the reasons an HVAC system doesn’t operate properly. A technician’s success in quickly finding all the reasons for a malfunction is critically dependent on a complete understanding of HVAC system functioning and whether the questions applied are relevant. If a technician applies irrelevant diagnostic questions, they will not be appropriate to find the reasons an HVAC system is not performing properly. If a technician applies diagnostic questions that are relevant, but incomplete, then not all of the potential causes of the malfunction will be evaluated.

This example reveals a fundamental truth that applies to improving employee job performance: Degree of success improving any outcome, including the functioning of an HVAC system and employee job performance, is determined by whether all relevant interventions are used to achieve the desired improvement. In turn, the use of all appropriate interventions is determined by whether all the actual causes of an unacceptable outcome are identified by an analysis. Identification of all actual causes operating in a given situation is, in turn, determined by whether all potential causes are assessed by the analysis. Finally, the explanation of an outcome that directs the analysis determines whether the analysis assesses all, some, or none of the potential causes of that outcome. In other words, explanations (also known as theories) can be quite practical, contrary to the popular view that all theories are just theories (i.e., useless).

In the context of improving employee job performance, the explanation of job performance that directs the search for the reasons for unacceptable job performance determines which potential causes of job performance are assessed, the actual causes found to be operating, which interventions are used, and the amount of improvement achieved.

Successfully managing employee job performance, especially job performance that impacts customer satisfaction and company goals, is essential for the long-term growth of a company. However, experience in many industries shows that management processes are seldom subjected to process improvement, particularly in small to mid-size companies. Management processes established early in the life of a company often continue with little change as the company grows in size and complexity. However, it is just as important to improve the process of management as it is to improve the processes used to provide products and deliver services.

Company goals and customer loyalty are at risk when a management team lacks information about weaknesses in its management practices that inadvertently result in employees working in ways that prevent the achievement of company goals, upset customers, or make it difficult for other employees to serve customers. The importance of effectively managing employee job performance is shown by this general principle:

If a top performing person is placed into a dysfunctional or incomplete process for managing employee job performance, then sooner or later the management process will transform the top performer into an average or below average performer (or the employee will resign).

Imagine, then, what a dysfunctional or incomplete management process does to the job performance of a typical employee.

The discipline of Human Performance Technology provides an explanation of employee job performance that identifies all the factors that control employee job performance. According to this explanation, 13 factors, acting together, control employee job performance.

Seven factors act on the job performance of individual employees.

Expectations: The standards that customers expect a product or service to meet and how customers expect to be treated by employees.

Feedback: Data that tell employees how closely their job performance meets customers’ standards.

Consequences: What happens to employees when their job performance meets or exceeds customers’ expectations and when it doesn’t.

Abilities: The skills and knowledge required for job performance to meet customers’ standards.

Resources: The tools, supplies, materials, equipment, procedures, and physical space required for job performance to meet customers’ standards.

Capacity: The physical capabilities required for job performance to meet customers’ standards.

Preference: Whether an employee chooses to perform as expected under the physical and social conditions that exist at the job site, for the rewards that are available when job performance meets or exceeds expectations, and for the compensation and fringe benefits.

Three factors act on the output of a work process.

Complexity: The number, sequence, and difficulty of the steps in a work process; interference from competing assignments.

Internal Supplier/Internal Customer Relations: How well the work of internal suppliers (individuals and departments) meets the requirements of their internal customers (individuals and departments) who contribute to the same work process.

Process Outcome Specifications: How closely specifications for the output of a process match the expectations of the internal and external users of that output.

Three factors act on a company’s entire work force.

Customer Focused Mission: A mission statement that clearly dedicates a company to satisfying its customers, then living up to the intent of the statement.

Compensation: Bonuses, salary/wage increases, and promotions given to employees who regularly satisfy internal and external customers.

Performance Appraisal: Every employee is held accountable in some specific way for meeting the expectations of their internal and/or external customers.

Follow these five steps to proactively determine if opportunities exist to strengthen what your company does to manage employee job performance that impacts customer satisfaction and company goals.

1. Select a position in your company that has significant impact on customer satisfaction and/or on your company’s overall goals.

2. Answer these questions as they apply to employees in the position you selected in Step 1. (Note: To simplify this presentation, not all of the diagnostic questions are included for each of the 13 factors that control employee job performance.)

- Do these employees know in specific detail those features your core products and/or services must have in order for prospects and customers to buy from you instead of a competitor?

- Do these employees know the standards their work unit must achieve in order to consistently meet the requirements of prospects, external customers, and internal customers and to consistently meet the company’s overall goals?

- Do these employees know in specific detail how prospects and customers expect to be treated by these employees?

- Do these employees have current information about how closely:

• Your core products and/or services meet customer expectations?

• Their work unit’s performance meets the requirements of its internal customers?

- When the job performance of these employees consistently meets the requirements of their external and internal customers or meets the company’s overall goals, are these employees regularly given non-financial recognition such as appreciation, praise, and thanks?

- When these employees consistently annoy or upset their external or internal customers, do their managers deal effectively with this poor performance?

- Do the current procedures for selecting people for this position show whether candidates have all the skills and knowledge needed to meet the requirements of the external and internal customers of this position?

- Do these employees always have the equipment, materials, supplies, work space, procedures, and tools in the quantity and quality needed to consistently meet the requirements of their external and internal customers or to consistently meet the company’s overall goals?

- Are the work procedures used by these employees regularly reviewed to determine if their outcomes would improve by eliminating unnecessary steps, combining steps, changing the sequence of steps, simplifying the steps, or eliminating boring repetition?

- Does the performance appraisal/review process clearly and explicitly hold these employees accountable for how well their individual job performance meets the requirements of their external and/or internal customers?

3. Answer the questions in Step 2 as they apply to the position that manages the position you selected in Step 1.

4. For each ‘No’ answer in Steps 2 and 3, identify how the current situation could hurt your company’s efforts to attract first time buyers, convert first time buyers into customers, retain existing customers, increase the value of purchases by existing customers, and to meet overall goals.

5. If the negative consequences identified in Step 4 are unacceptable, revise as appropriate what your company does to manage the job performance of the positions selected in Steps 1 and 3.

Contrary to conventional wisdom in the business community, managers’ actions and inactions are a primary reason that employees upset customers and fail to contribute to a company’s goals. When employees work within a dysfunctional or incomplete performance management process, their job performance is unlikely to meet their managers’ or customers’ expectations. When this happens, managers typically complain to each other about their employees. Yet these managers have inadvertently created the very situation they complain about. Worse, they’ll blame the victim by saying the employee is “dumb,” “lazy,” “has an attitude problem,” or “needs training.” However, a comprehensive, integrated, and effective process for managing employee job performance is what actually is required.

Because the diagnostic questions in Step 2 are based on a complete and relevant explanation of employee job performance, they reveal where opportunities exist to improve the process for managing employee job performance. By using the five steps described above to evaluate your company’s process for managing employee job performance at regular intervals (e.g., annually), you’ll continuously improve the impact on your company’s overall goals and on customer satisfaction of the management practices used in your company to control employee job performance. Other benefits include strengthened competitive position, fewer fires created by upset customers, and fewer resources spent acquiring new customers to replace those who have switched to your competitors.

Publication date: 08/10/2009

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