Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Take It Easy on that Waitress. It’s Probably Not Her Fault.

A beautiful summer evening found us sitting outdoors at the new fancy restaurant in town. The hostess brought us menus and the busboy brought us ice water. So far, so good. Fifteen minutes later, Susie the waitress comes to the table, slightly frazzled. She apologizes for the delay, explaining that she has a table of eight that was taking more time than expected. She takes our drink order, returning with said drinks around ten minutes later. My dad, not known for being patient in these situations, flags down the manager and explains how slow the service is. He suggests that the waitress “needs some training.” Yeah, it was a little embarrassing.

“Dad,” I start, after the manager leaves, “you just saw one of the main points of Agile Performance Improvement,” referring to my new book. “I agree that the service is slow, but it’s probably not Susie’s fault.”

Typically, when things go wrong in the workplace, managers (and customers) are quick to point to factors within the individual. “Susie needs some training” is a typical refrain. The cause of the service problem is much more likely in the work environment itself. As Geary Rummler famously said, “when you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.”

The lesson comes from the field of human performance technology (HPT), one of two, along with agile software development, building blocks of agile performance improvement. In 1978, Thomas F. Gilbert, the “father of HPT” introduced his behavior engineering model as part of his seminal book, Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. Human performance is the product of environmental factors and individual factors. When the consultant performs cause analysis on a problem of human performance, factors in the environment will be responsible most of the time. Some say 85% of the time. This is known as the “85% rule.”

Think of the other reasons, beside Susie’s competence as a waitress, that could contribute to the slow service.
  • There are not enough employees working to handle the volume of business on this particular night.
  • The hostess seats tables unevenly among the service staff such that one waitress becomes overwhelmed.
  • The bar is understaffed, or disorganized, causing cascading delays in all aspects of the service.
  • Problems in the kitchen create holdups in serving other tables, taking Susie away from our table.
  • Susie broke up with the dishwasher last week, and they were outside having an argument in the alley.

OK, the last one is a bit ridiculous. The point is: from where I sit I have no idea why it takes 25 minutes someone to take our order. But, I shouldn’t start with the assumption that Susie needs training, because it’s likely not going to significantly improve things. If I was managing the restaurant, or the restaurant hired me to help with their service problem, I would conduct further analysis to pin down the root causes, speaking with employees and observing the service over the course of several nights.
I don’t work in the restaurant business anymore, but in my role as a performance consultant supporting a large software engineering function, I see this scenario all of the time, at least weekly. A manager will come to me with a request for training, without having considered what performance problem they are trying to solve. They jump to a training solution without identifying the causes of the business problem. Starting with the assumption that whatever is going wrong can be fixed by training the individual will probably not remediate the service disaster in the fancy restaurant. It will just waste everyone’s time and money.

By addressing the causes of problems, instead of the symptoms, businesses will spend less time being industrious in doing things that make no difference.

Read more about Gilbert, the behavior engineering model, and many more examples in Agile Performance Improvement: The New Synergy of Agile and Human Performance Technology.

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