Coaching for Top Performance

Developing a Performance Improvement Plan
A plan to improve an employee's performance must consist of several key elements to succeed. The steps in the plan proceed in a logical order, with the ultimate goal of arriving at improved performance.

First, the plan must identify clearly the performance issue or issues in question. The information to do that comes from the documentation gathered.

Second, it is necessary for the manager to identify and describe the desired performance in the specific area or areas about which he or she is concerned. This information can be gathered from existing performance standards or from the manager's adjustment of the standards to meet new requirements. The desired performance could also come from the current company or department goals and ascertaining what the employees must contribute from their function to help the organization realize those goals.

Third, a performance improvement plan must measure the gaps between the present performance level and the desired improvement level. This helps to establish the specific goal. It also assists you in determining an appropriate time-frame for the improvement plan. For example, if an employee in the shipping department should be packaging products with 100-percent accuracy but is only at 88 percent, then there is a 12-percent gap that must be closed. This will, of course, take time. A 12-percent gap will not be closed in a week. A part of identifying the performance gap is to also develop a realistic time-frame for performance improvement.

Fourth, the manager must list what is expected of the employee and what is expected of the manager in terms of support, information, training, feedback, and so on.

Fifth, the manager should outline a step-by-step action plan along with a time-frame for each action. This will help keep both the employee and the manager on track throughout the improvement. Let's look at each of these in greater detail.

Step 1: Identify the Performance Problem
This may seem redundant at this point, but keep in mind that a major failing on the part of management in turning employees around is misidentifying problem areas.

Has your understanding of the performance problem changed? Probably it has deepened. A deeper (and better) understanding of the problem results in a more comprehensive improvement plan that takes into account contingencies you would not have otherwise considered.

The best way fully to identify the performance problem is to summarize it in a problem statement. In a few sentences, simply write out the problem. Include the documentation, how long the problem has been occurring, and what the so-called cost is to the organization.

Step 2: Describe the Desired Change
Often, managers don't specifically describe what they want to see in the area of performance improvement. They may make such broad statements as, "Become more efficient," but may not describe what that means. Or they'll say, "Work faster," without coaching an employee through the "how-to's" of working faster. To motivate an employee, the manager must be able to describe the desired performance. In planning, it also helps to know at what level of performance the employee is to aim. Then the proper training, feedback, and steps (or minigoals) can be built into the overall improvement goal.

In many cases, the long-term desired change is a complete elimination of the performance problem. Depending on the performance area, this may be a long-term process. For example, reducing rework to zero is a goal, but one that must be tackled each day. For an employee whose rework percentages are consistently above specifications, the desired change is that he or she will be consistently within specifications. In the improvement process, that employee might occasionally attain a zero rework number. But to set this up as the daily standard, particularly when he or she hasn't even been within specifications, is to set the desired change too high. Rather than being motivating, it will do just the opposite: demotivate. Instead, the desired change should be for the employee to meet specifications in the area of rework. After that, the problem is over, and a further improvement plan can be developed to keep the employee challenged and growing.

Step 3: Measure the Performance Gap
What will it take to get the employee "from here to there"? This is a matter of measuring the performance gap. This measurement is essential to developing a reasonable action plan later on. Some work place performance issues can be resolved in a short time, say two to three weeks, but others will require several months or longer. The action plan you develop must align itself within the appropriate time-frame. The time-frame can be partly ascertained by measuring the gap between where the employee's performance presently is and where you desire it to be.

How do you measure the gap? One way is strictly on a numbers or percentage basis. For example, say a data-entry worker has an error rate of 100 per 1000 orders taken, or 10 percent. The company standard is a 1-percent error rate per 1000 orders. The identifiable gap is 9 percent. An improvement plan would work to reduce the gap until the company standard is being met by the employee. A manager may attempt to work with the employee to bring the error rate down a percentage point, or by 10 orders, per week. In just over two months, the employee would be within the company standard.

Other improvement areas may not lend themselves as easily to a numbers or percentage measurement. For example, what about poor time management? Say an employee is taking too long on research projects, completing them past clear and reasonable deadlines. The gap to be measured would be by how much time, on average, deadlines were being missed-by two days or two weeks? This information can help determine when improvement has occurred. As the gap decreases between what the deadlines are and when the employee completes projects, performance is improving. Obviously the overall objective is to assist the employee in meeting, and even beating, clear and reasonable deadlines.

Step 4: List Expectations (for You and the Employee)
This is a simple way to make certain that the manager has all the bases covered. Your list of expectations should include the training you want the employee to take, changes in how the performance area will be documented during the improvement period, and listing what the employee can expect from you, such as support, feedback, and whatever resources you need to provide.

With this list in hand, you will be more prepared to "sell" the improvement plan to the employee.

Step 5: Develop an Action Plan
An action plan is a prioritized check sheet of the steps that need to be taken to accomplish the performance improvement, and approximate dates at which each step will be completed. This really is the road map of the performance improvement plan. Keep in mind that several steps may happen simultaneously. For example, as the manager you might agree to make changes in a specific procedure while the employee carries out aspects of improvement over which he or she has control.

The first step will be to set an appointment to discuss the performance problem and agree to a performance improvement plan, including a time frame for the improvement. A second step could be to make the necessary changes in the system surrounding the performance problem. The third step is for the employee to take relevant training, whether on-the-job or formal training, or both. Fourth, a regular feedback system should be set up, whereby the employee sits down with you and discusses progress and roadblocks in the improvement process.

There may be other steps that your particular situation requires, but the steps discussed thus far give you a general idea of the things to include.