Estimating the Performance Situation

Last week I mentioned a few communication tools that I learned how to use in the Army. One of these is the Estimate, which is a problem-solving tool. As young officers, we were constantly told to “estimate the situation and never situate the estimate”. In many cases, when training is prescribed for a work performance issue, it is a case of situating the estimate. I can think of two recent examples in my own business experience.

In one case, e-learning was prescribed to address the performance needs of nurses changing to a new nursing care methodology. In that instance, I was able to convince the client that a quick performance analysis could be used to confirm the assumption that e-learning was the solution. As a result of the analysis, we changed the intervention to the development of an online diagramming tool, because we determined that nursing staff already had 80% of the necessary skills and knowledge, but they didn’t know how to use the new diagramming and reporting procedures. The initial e-learning program was greatly reduced.

In another case, training was prescribed in order to get staff up to date with a new organisation-wide policy. Each person received an average of 17 days classroom training. As an observer for part of the training, I would estimate that all of the training could have been done in less than a week, had the new procedures and some job aids been first developed. The total cost of training approached millions of dollars, plus the cost of missed work.

Recently, David Maister stated that training is often prescribed in the “hope” that performance can be improved, when a few pointed questions might better get to the root of the issue:

The correct process would be to sit top management down, ask: What are people not doing that we want them to be doing? – and then figuring out a complete sequence of actions to address the questions  – how do we actually get people to change their behavior? What measurements need to change? – what behaviors by top management need to change to convince people that the new behaviors are really required, not just encouraged? – what has to happen before the training sessions to bring about the change? What has to be in place the very day they finish?

A more detailed process is shown below. It shows that training only works in certain circumstances and that there are a number of other factors to look at first; such as barriers to performance and mismatched rewards & consequences.

A macro view of this process is that triage (sorting out priorities) should initiate the process, followed by a diagnosis (analysis), which can be as short as Maister’s questions, before prescribing some kind of treatment which may or may not include training. Using this method, I continue what my instructors told me many years ago – don’t situate the estimate.


Finally, here’s a job aid that I use in determining what the causes to performance problems may be:

  • Causes, Enablers and Obstacles:
    • Question the assumptions and potential solutions.
    • What is causing the problem?
    • What will prevent a solution?
    • What will make a solution easier?
  • Focus on Key Sources:
    • Find and focus on the people who are close to the problem and have perspective on the issues. Don’t try and reach everyone, especially in an initial performance analysis.
    • Focus on facts and results
  • Look for data, through observations, records, experiences:
    • What evidence is there?
    • Is it consistent?
    • What does it tell us?
    • Is there more?

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