The Sirens of Performance Improvement

“Next, where the Sirens dwell, you plough the seas;         Their song is death, and makes destruction please.”                -Homer (The Odyssey)

Have you ever left port on a ship and traveled into the open sea? Casting off, you head outward, slicing smoothly yet deliberately through the calm emerald green harbor waters. If it’s your first time, you think, “This is great! This is calm, this is smooth. Why was I worried about getting sick?” Such is similar sailing for most during initial performance improvement efforts. You decide to cast off, it all seems very simple. You navigate toward the harbor entrance. Life is good.

“Such a smooth journey!” you say to yourself. “Why do people think that improving performance is so hard?” Of course you know, you must depart the harbor calm and head into the open sea. It is there that your “next level” awaits! As the harbor opens to the sea, the question becomes, “Heading, Ma'am (or Sir)?” Bolstered by the ease of your initial movement, you answer as James Kirk after regaining command of the Enterprise, “Out there…that a way! [i] ”

Safe harbor behind, your wave of initial enthusiasm now turns to the hard work of chasing the horizon. The seas have gotten rough. What is your best course? Day-to-day demands consume your energy. Weariness sets in. Making your way to the stern of the ship, you look backward. Seeing the now distant shores where you once docked, you recognize that you have indeed made progress. This offers only momentary comfort, however, because your travels thus far certainly aren’t ‘good enough’. There are targets to be chased, trends to be analyzed, metrics to be calculated, KPIs to be reported. Racing back forward, to the bow, your gaze is again upon the horizon. How can you ever possibly get there?

In truth, performance improvement is like the horizon- an ongoing journey into the sunrise. You never actually “arrive”. There must always be a “next-level”. The secret is to be crystal clear about your current target. This is the only way to intelligently plot your course to get there. Then, just prior to arriving at what was your target, you precisely calculate your next one, take what you have learned from your journey thus far, and plot your ongoing course. No matter your industry, or the size of your team, department, or enterprise, this is your pathway to a successful future. This is, as Tony Robbins calls it, Constant And Never-ending Improvement (CANI).

Unfortunately, there are many “sirens” along such a journey, doing their best to lure you off course. In Homer’s Odyssey, listening to the Sirens’ song could not be resisted. “Firm to the mast with chains thyself be bound,” was the sole means offered for averting the otherwise ultimate doom. From my experience, the lure of analysts, consultants, and salespeople hawking everything from “tool kits”, to prescriptive processes, to expensive software and databases has become irresistible to many in their ongoing search for the “next step”. Unfortunately, the thrust of most offerings, in spite of their bells, whistles, and alluring song, offer (at best) surface-level behavioral influence, while many are merely different forms of attempting to manage people like things. Such are the crags, and rocks, and shoals of doom for many tasked with performance improvement. As described in The Odyssey (just because I cannot resist),

“In verdant meads they sport; and wide around

Lie human bones that whiten all the ground”

The two predominant Sirens of Human Performance are, analoculitis, and the Shiny Box, presented here lest ye be tempted to wander toward and be captivated by their alluring songs… In other words (getting back to ‘normal speak’), these are the two predominant traps that will tend to pull you off course if you let them. As you read the descriptions that follow, should you find that you are already within their grasp, awareness and admission provide your first step to recovery.

Analoculitis

Analoculitis: (1) An acute focus upon the accumulation of massive amounts of data with the intent of extracting insight about obvious behaviors (which could otherwise be immediately reinforced or addressed through direct interaction), thereby drawing conclusions regarding the need, at some point in the future, for corrective action; (2) cranial rectal inversion[ii]

Human Performance is not complicated. Let me re-phrase that: achieving next-level performance, whether your focus be upon Safety Culture, Quality, or High Reliability is not complicated…with a proper focus upon and leveraging of human performance. You simply do NOT need more Six Sigma studies, more matrices, more databases, or more multi-colored graphs and bar charts to move things in a positive direction.

Yes, measurement is important, but as we discussed previously, measurement is a means, a gage of progress, not the end result. It’s like the oil pressure gage in your car. While that meter and the information it provides are indeed important, you need the engine to propel you to where you want to go. And that engine, no matter what type of business you’re in, is human performance.

A huge example of the stagnation and lack of progress caused by analoculitis can be seen within the US medical industry. This is an industry currently responsible for the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In the book published in 2000, To Err is Human, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reported, “as many as 98,000 people die in any given year from medical errors that occur in hospitals [iii] .” In 2013, an article in the Journal of Patient Safety, elevated this estimation to between 210,000 and 440,000 hospital patients per year who suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death [iv] .

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why there is not more outrage about this. Either the means of ‘estimation’ have shifted dramatically, or things are getting much worse in the medical industry. I like to believe it’s the former; but either way, there appears to be very slow (if any) industry-wide resolution to the problem of medical error. This being said, wonderful rays of hope have emerged, such as the Texas medical system indicated in the Introduction. But even here, you have to ask an obvious question: If someone within the industry has ‘cracked the code’ on solving a significant area of medical error (infections), why in the heck hasn’t their ‘discovery’ been immediately adopted across the industry?

From my experience and my observation, the answer is…analoculitis. To be fair, errors in the medical industry tend to be cloaked in clandestine secrecy for fear of being sued. This is often the case internally within hospitals, let alone sharing outside the organization so that the rest of the industry can learn. But in the case of this incredibly effective (and simple) solution to a huge problem that has been ‘discovered’ in Texas, the response by most within the industry appears to be a continued desire for more studies, more data, another survey. This is insanity!

Before I go further, I must say that my experiences with the medical industry have witnessed no lack of desire by those who work within it to make things better. This industry is filled with hard-working staff members who truly want to help people. But for some reason, the “system” grinds along, seemingly resistant to external input and lessons learned, whether such lessons come from outside the industry or simply from another company or institution within the medical community. The predominant focus seems to be upon a need to overhaul the system, which of course requires lots of money, lots of time, more Six Sigma studies, etc. This is totally not necessary to begin dramatically improving performance. Want proof? The ‘miracle’ in Texas that has led to essentially zero infections is...the simple act of doctors, nurses, and technicians washing their hands before touching a patient. A simple [committed] shift in behaviors, and one of the leading causes of patient harm in hospitals has been essentially eradicated. Achieving amazing results through focus on human performance is not complicated.

Here’s another example of analoculitis from my nuclear days as head of the Technical Support Department. One of our areas of responsibility was management of the “Observation & Coaching” program. The program consisted of two major components: First off, eight hours of documented “observation time” was required of those in the positions of Frontline Supervisor (FLS) and above. Of itself, this was a great concept. Proper and frequent interaction between those who do the work and those who oversee and manage is a critical component to achieving and sustaining next-level performance.

But the second element of the ‘program’ was where it got all screwed up- the focus upon acquiring megabytes of data. During the observation time, each FLS/manager was armed with a “Coaching Card”, providing a checklist of things to look for and grade. “What’s wrong with that?” you ask. Nothing, in and of itself. However, when you pair very busy people (which most employees in defined positions of leadership are) with rote requirements, left-brain bias, and checklists, it becomes an exercise to complete the checklist rather than maximizing the opportunity for quality interaction with the people being observed. It becomes about data accumulation rather than relationships. A great idea gone bad, again falling into the pit of analoculitis.

The "Shiny Box"

In addition to the ever-present pit of analoculitis, we are all susceptible to the luring song of the Shiny Box.

There are four primary reasons for this:

  • Our lizard brains[v] (the part ​of our brains that gets ‘first shot’ at processing incoming information and is tasked with our survival) are acutely attracted to anything that appears to be new, novel, and pleasant (this is a fact of Human Nature),AND
  • Our lizard brains seek to conserve energy- we tend to look for simple concrete solutions (such as databases) to solve complex [seemingly] abstract challenges (also a fact of Human Nature), AND
  • We take our focus off of (aka get bored with) the fundamentals of human performance, getting sidetracked by an apparent quick fix, something new and revolutionary, or the charisma of a speaker, consultant, or company seemingly having the cure for whatever is ailing us at the moment, AND/OR
  • We have not taken the time to clearly visualize and articulate our current target (precisely what we’re seeking to achieve), allowing us to be easily diverted from our course

How can you defend against these tendencies that make you vulnerable to getting “sucked in”? Relative to the Human Nature of your lizard brain, which is attracted to pleasant novelties and wants to conserve energy by minimizing logical thought, simply be aware of it. This is your first defense.

If you find yourself getting bored with an incessant focus on the fundamentals, patience young grasshopper. If patience is not one of your virtues (it certainly isn’t one of mine), and you’re tempted to dive head first into something you just saw on the internet, read the story of Vince Lombardi in Chapter Three of 6-Hour Safety Culture before you make any decisions.

Finally, if you’ve never truly dug into the underlying why of what you’re doing, which is absolutely necessary if you are to have a clear visualization and articulation of where you’re headed, stop right now and complete the following exercise. Do this now, before you read any further.

This exercise involves completing what we refer to as the Transformation Conversation, developed in its original form by one of my mentors, Dan Sullivan. When you take the time to thoughtfully have this Conversation with yourself, it will help you get to your core. If you are part of a team that is making recommendations and providing direction (especially if “excellence” is in your team’s title), every member of the team should complete this exercise, first individually, and then collectively. Watch the short video first, then download the worksheets and complete them:

http://ppiweb.com/future-performance-improvement/pursuing-excellence/

All of us must continually guard against Shiny Box temptation. This is true in virtually all areas of life. When it comes to performance improvement, however, you can be a very easy target if you are...

a.

A very busy senior leader or business owner who feels an acute sense of pressure to improve performance, whether self-induced, because of a client, competitor, or regulator, or because something really bad just happened, OR

b.

One tasked with performance improvement, and you’re under the gun to recommend solutions or provide results because of perceived negative trends, client/competitor/regulator demands, or the need to respond to something really bad that just happened

As humans, we make choices based upon one of two primal motivations: To eliminate pain, or to acquire pleasure. If you find yourself in either the (a) or (b) category described above, you are likely searching in earnest for some means by which to reduce your pain. This is a very strong motivation. It may very well be the reason you’re reading this article. Be patient. Allow past decisions and experiences, combined with whatever it is you’re currently facing, to provide you with wisdom and resolve, not reaction and temptation.

Tim Autrey is the Founder/CEO of the Practicing Perfection Institute, Inc. (http://wwww.ppiweb.com). This article is an excerpt from his latest book, 6-Hour Safety Culture- How to Sustainably Reduce Human Error and Risk (and do what training alone can’t (possibly) do), published by the Human Performance Association. The book is available in both Kindle and hard copy editions at Amazon.com.


[1] Star Trek: The Motion Picture; Paramount Pictures; 1979; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=to9HVz793Kc

[1] Practicing Perfection Institute, Inc.; Glossary of Terms; 2015

[1] To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System; Institute of Medicine; National Academy Press; 2000

[1] Journal of Patient Safety: September 2013 - Volume 9 - Issue 3 - p 122–128

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