When managers complain about an employee's performance there are usually two possibilities. Either the employee is letting the manager down or the manager is letting the employee down. Everyone identifies with employees being the problem. Our tendency is to chalk up poor performance to incompetency or laziness. But knowledge workers need the right tools for the job just like everyone else.
Business processes are the toolset of the knowledge worker. Those processes are designed, maintained and certified by managers. So when an employee is not performing ask if it might be the manager failing the employee that's the problem. Managers fail by not providing tools sufficient to do the job or do it the right way.
If you have lingering questions about whether your employees are really the problem or whether you might be to blame ask a few questions.
1. Do we even have a process?
This seems obvious, but in smaller, fast growing companies it is not uncommon for whole parts of the company to be run by one person. Joan has been doing shipping for five years so Joan knows everything there is to know about shipping. The problem is no one else knows and if Joan starts falling behind we assume she just can't keep up with the work load. But if there has never been a process for shipping Joan might be getting bogged down because the people upstream of her are never submitting orders for shipment the same way twice. What is missing is a standard that allows Joan to become more efficient at scale rather than less.
Experienced team members need processes just as much as inexperienced ones. When you start to correctly identify processes as tools you start to see how foolish it is to assume someone can substitute experience for the right wrench.
2. Did anyone ever agree to use the tool?
Bean counters and pencil necks are notorious for designing processes in the ivory tower that never survive their first encounter with the real world. Processes designed by a party of one are destined to fail. Building a good process is a collaborative effort. It isn't hard but it can be time consuming.
Buy-in is critical. No matter what steps you go through to build your process the very last step should include going around the room and asking every single person who must use the tool "Is there anything, based on what you know right now, that would keep you from using this tool to do your job? Speak now or forever hold your peace."
3. Has responsibility been abdicated or delegated?
It is common for managers to create a process, launch it with fanfare and never look back. They have abdicated responsibility to a process rather than delegate responsibility to a person.
Good processes start out as flawed processes. What makes a good process is refinement and refinement only happens during the course of holding people accountable to the process. How does this work in real life?
One month after launching a new shipping process, Joan's manager, Amy, pulls ten invoices and compares the documentation to the standards outlined in the new process. Four of the invoices don't match the process. Amy calls Joan in for an explanation and finds out the process breaks down on the 29th, 30th and 31st of the month from a rush of last minute shipping to meet sales numbers. Amy and Joan work out a solution that allows the most time consuming part of the process to be batched and entered later during the busiest times of the month.
The analogy of processes as tools for the knowledge worker is not a trivial one. If your employees are struggling it might be their work ethic or it might be their competency. Or, it might be that their boss is neglecting a responsibility to provide the right tools for the job.