How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes.  One year.

[tweetmeme source=”leanisgood” service=”ow.ly”]Over the last couple months we have posted several times on annual performance appraisals (The Jackass FallacyDan Pink’s & W. Edward’s Deming’s take on motivationBryan suggests a better way, and competition among peers.)

I’m not done ranting about performance appraisals (although I did leave the word jackass out of the title of this post in order to avoid abjectly insulting those who might disagree with me.)

The idea of one person passing judgment on a year in the life of another person gives me pause on several levels.  Especially, when the person who does the judging is in all likelihood responsible for developing the judged and the environment / systems within which the judged works.  The person doing the judging might have even selected the person they are judging.  All that said I will limit the scope of my diatribe today to fallacy that individual performance can be adequately separated from the system’s inherent variation.

One of W. Edwards Deming‘s principal criticisms of managers was that they were typically ignorant of the nature of variation in systems.  Building on the work of Walter Shewhart, Deming espoused the importance understanding the difference between special cause and chance variation.   Deming believed that in most systems the result was due to systemic causes and the systems ‘noise’ variation:

The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.

Deming from The Merit System: The Annual Appraisal: Destroyer of People:

It (merit ranking) leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work, for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior.  It is unfair as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system that they work in.

Sometimes it might not be that bad, but when a boss has to differentiate between people and rank or rate people, many people will believe that the difference in perceived performance is due to system cause or system variation.  On some level they will understand that their performance wasn’t really inferior.  The merit system, the boss, and maybe even the organization will lose credibility and moral claim in the eyes of the judged.  Somebody might even end up with their ‘give a damn’ busted.

Finally, Dr. Deming also believed that management need to have knowledge of psychology (the fourth pillar in his system of profound knowledge.)  Without an understanding of both variation and  psychology the manager will be likely to further invest in the proposition that they can adequately and accurately assess a year in the life a person.  Dr. Deming from The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education:

The various segments of the system of profound knowledge proposed here cannot be separated. They interact with each other. Thus, knowledge of psychology is incomplete without knowledge of variation.

A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management. A psychologist that possesses even a crude understanding of variation as will be learned in the experiment with the Red Beads (Ch. 7) could no longer participate in refinement of a plan for ranking people.

What do you think?  How do you measure a year in somebody’s life?

While I was beginning to write this post I was listening to some music.  One of the songs that I was listening to seemed appropriate to share with you here.  It is playwright Jonathan Larson‘s answer to the title question of this post from his contemporary recapitulation of Puccini‘s La bohemeRent. The play follows the lives of eight friends for a year during the gentrification of the East Village. The songs asks and answers the question, how to measure the year their lives.  Listen for Larson’s answer in Tracie Thoms‘s secular gospel solo during the last chorus.  It’s a nice song from a great play and a great movie.

Bruce

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3 Responses

  1. How do you measure a year in somebody’s life? Backwards. And that adjective describes as well the management systems calling for such measurements.

    The real question is not “How?” but “Why?” Measurement for the purpose of evaluation is, as Deming warned, destructive. Performance appraisals and their conjoined twins, incentive awards, are insidious succubi that subtly drain people’s joy in work and are among the worst practices prevalent in our social systems. What makes them so bad is their general acceptance. People think they are necessary. Well, actually, they don’t really think; not critically anyway.

    Even many of those who see their flaws won’t destroy the evil creatures. Instead they try to rehabilitate (“improve”) them; they try to devise “better” performance appraisal and incentive reward systems. It’s like a witch doctor improving his spells for performing a ceremony. No real chants for that happening…

    These viruses infest our workplaces and our educational systems (where they are known by names like report cards, grades, gold stars, etc.); workers and students alike are destroyed by them. Self-fulfilling prophecies (including the Pygmalion Effect) abound and produce illusory corroboration of our “prowess” at evaluating, rewarding, and punishing by such methods. Performance appraisals make poor performers out of those rated poorly (in both senses of the word “poorly”), thereby “proving” their effectiveness.

    Those who have achieved “success” by these methods, e.g., managers and educators, pass on, like vampires, their batty techniques, infecting others.They call this “feedback.” I call it eating away our society.

    When more of us understand intrinsic motivation, maybe we’ll move from trying to control others to creating an environment where people can better control what they do and how they do it. And when more of us understand the Theory of Variation, maybe we’ll move from treating individuals as “special causes,” many of whom need to be replaced, to seeing them as special beings that can’t be replaced. Most importantly, when more of us understand systems thinking, maybe we’ll get this other nonsense out of our system.

  2. Nice Simon. Keep bein’ awesome. Thumbs up to your comment.

  3. […] for A3sHoshin Kanri and Metrics: Make it PersonalMaintenance and TPM and Continuous ImprovementHow do you measure the life of a woman or a man?Book Review – Lead Well and ProsperRountable 1 – Are lean certifications […]

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