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The Best Way to Improve Results

A manager takes charge of a workers' comp unit whose business is to service insurance agreements ensuring that client employees get in to see a doctor within one hour. The actual wait times, however, have been averaging closer to two-and-a-half hours. She has had no luck changing this deplorable result, and customer satisfaction is understandably low. What should she do?

The answer is surprisingly simple, but often ignored in favor of more complicated, expensive, AND ineffective alternatives. This manager chose to frequently and visibly report the average wait times to her employees. She had multiple locations, so she was able to create a benchmark that allowed each location to know the wait times of the others. Because the results were so prominently displayed and meaningful in terms of a real target that made a difference employees started changing behaviors that improved their results.

For instance, they figured out that one bottleneck was that patient files would sit in a file box waiting for a doctor to pick them up. With the new feedback on wait times, employees took responsibility for making sure the doctors promptly acted on the files physically handing the records to doctors if necessary. (Never mind that they were making incursions onto turf for which they were clearly subordinate.)

It worked within weeks. That is, after starting to post daily wait times for each of the locations, the wait times reduced. The manager had resigned herself to setting a target of a one-and-a-half hour average wait time. With feedback on results, the unit blew past that to under one hour. She did nothing else; the most rigorous scientist would be satisfied with the results of this "experiment" because no other variables were altered. New people were not hired. No incentive or rewards systems were introduced. No process engineering or time-and-motion studies were conducted to seek out inefficiencies. No intensive supervision or heart-to-heart interventions were conducted to make sure employees were on task and "doing things right." There were no employee training sessions or ratcheting up of employee performance evaluations. No institution of balanced scorecards or 360 instruments. Just feedback on results that was the "independent variable" and in this situation the critical factor.

To be most effective, feedback on results does require three things. First, the result(s) has to be meaningful. Wait time was an important metric for the business, and employees understood why it was important. It is the manager's job to both identify the important metric and to make it meaningful for those who must impact the results. Financial statements are rarely meaningful or actionable for employees at the work level. Figure out which metrics have real meaning.

Second, feedback must be visible. Often, managers report important results, but the feedback is obscured by all kinds of other data or noise. If you are sending out a three-page report, ask yourself: What do people really need to know that is relevant to their own performance? You can probably put it on a single page in a large font.

In advertising, it has been proven that signage is most effective when it has exclusivity that is, when it does not compete with other visuals and information. That's why the most prized placements at sporting events are the ones that don't share space with other ads (e.g., the backstop at a tennis tournament). The same is true for providing feedback to employees remove the noise.

Third, make the feedback frequent. A common mistake is waiting for exact results before reporting them. But results feedback often can be based on judgment, and objective judgments reported promptly are much preferred to exact results that are delayed. In the workers' comp example, the wait times reported by the manager were not precise, but they were accurate enough and timely enough to be valuable feedback to those doing the work.

Why is feedback on results so effective? Primarily because it enables individuals in a group to take responsibility that, without feedback, they could not. Without members of the workers' comp group accepting responsibility for the results, they would not see it as their job to barge into a doctor's office or exam room to "force" a patient file into their hands. Armed with knowledge of the results (both theirs and other locations), each individual in the group was able to take responsibility for removing the bottlenecks. Importantly, it created a common end that allowed everyone to cooperate.

So are you seeking to improve results? What is keeping you from creating frequent, visible feedback systems?

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