Assessing for Continuous Improvement... or Not

You may have heard something about the ‘Nine Box’ employee assessment approach. I really don’t know who thought it up, but the academics love it and GE seems to have taken it to an art form. Like most of what academia and GE view as a grand. Critical concept, it is a very, very good idea that misses the critical point entirely. The problem is that it is built on the notion that their tried and true principles of professional management are proven and infallible.

Here are a couple of versions of it:

Performance 1

As you can see, it is based on the idea that there are two critical dimensions of people: Performance and Potential. Put another way, How they are doing to the current job description?; and How capable are they of doing that job even better?

It misses the fundamental need for kaizen entirely. It misses the basic lean principle that continuous improvement, meaning continuous change, is essential. It misses the point that continuous learning is the heart of success. It doesn’t consider the importance of teams and end to end process thinking and optimization. In short, it misses the point of Einstein’s famous quote: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Rather, it reinforces and institutionalizes existing processes.

A lean based approach to such a matrix for assessing people might look something like this:Performance 2

Note that its basic assessment criteria includes ‘cultural buy-in’, rather than ‘potential’. The two might be similar, but they are by no means the same. Potential is way too vague, and way to open to the person or people doing the assessment to reward people for the wrong things. It leaves things wide open for silo thinking managers to promote and encourage subordinates who believe in the silo approach.

The most glaring difference between the two approaches can be seen in the way the matrices view folks who find themselves in the lower right category – great performance but low potential in the GE system, low cultural buy-in under the lean approach. The GE approach suggests having them train others. The lean approach describes them as major problems and serious obstacles to continuous improvement; the kind of folks who should get booted out; the last people you would want exerting influence over others.

The bottom line is that culture is essential, and the culture necessary is one of continuous improvement in cross-functional process execution. If peoples’ attitude and willingness to embrace this culture is not an essential element of the evaluation and assessment scheme, you cannot expect to have an organization that continuously moves to great heights. Instead, you will have an organization that continually tries to solve problems with the same thinking used when they were created.

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