Performance improvement for Teams

July 3, 2018

All managers, regardless of industry, are in the business of engineering human performance. If they are to fulfill their responsibilities, they not only must be able to identify and measure competence, but they must also have a method for identifying its behavioral causes. What's really needed is a model or system that will guide them  in creating competence through more efficient behavior.

The role of the manager is to improve performance. In Thomas F. Gilbert's definition, someone is competent when he achieves valuable results at acceptable costs. Improving performance means increasing the value of the accomplishment while minimizing the effort it takes to achieve it.

So how can the manager improve team performance? Following Gilbert's principles for a performance improvement system, there are three components you need to make such a system.

  • Accomplishment: you need to decide what accomplishments you will focus on

  • Measurement: you need to know how to measure performance

  • Behavior: you need to determine what behavior is most efficient to get the best results

So the accomplishment is what to do, the measurement is how well you're doing against a performance standard (or the desired performance), and the behavior is how you're doing it. The manager should continuously wonder if the team is working on the most valuable activities, if it's done within acceptable effort, and if not, what behavior and support is lacking.


The performance system design we will discuss here applies to work that is project or activity driven, such as design, software development, marketing, moving an office, training development or more. It's not as suitable for recurring work like customer service call resolution, parts assembly or administrative entries. 


Determining what the accomplishments should be, means deciding what activities are required to achieve your objectives and in what order of priority. The priority is determined by the combined score of value and effort for each of the activities. Which promotion activity, product feature, sales activity or training objectives should you focus on?


To measure performance you need a standard to measure against. You need to know what the highest potential performance or minimal acceptable performance is. 


For project or activity driven work, the performance measurement is:

  • the completion of the prioritized activities

  • the quality of the work (did it match specifications/expectations)

  • the timeliness (was the due date met)

  • and the effort it took (hours of work)

For instance, in Marketing, we're going to pick the accomplishments we believe are going to get us the most new customers. Lets say we decide that accomplishment is published blog posts. The desired performance is that it will take 16 hours of work, that it is engaging to read, relevant to our target customers, is spell checked and uses proper grammar and is complete before April 2nd. The behavior we need to meet the desired performance includes having the skills, knowledge and tools to write a great blog post within that time frame.


For software development, we need to select the right features to focus on. We need to determine the specifications of the feature, the time it will take to complete it and when it needs to be ready. Then we need to assess if we have the skills, knowledge and tools to write quality code efficiently.

To improve performance you want to find even more valuable accomplishments, and look for ways to do it more efficiently. The objective of a performance system is to have instant information about current performance, so you know as early as possible if there are any performance issues.

How do you implement this in your team? If your team is project and activity driven, here are the steps to implement a framework for performance improvement:

  1. Have a process for identifying and prioritizing accomplishments/activities to focus on - and ensure everyone has access to this information

  2. Assign the work across the team

  3. Ask each team member to estimate how much time if will take to complete the work - use previous comparative work to help you with estimating - use confidence ranges to indicate how much more or less work it could be - ensure the estimate is worth the value of the accomplishment (300 hours for a blog post might not be worth the customers it will attract) 

  4. Based on the estimate and the available workable hours, set timelines with start and due dates

  5. When the work starts, ask team members to track percentage completion of the work regularly (daily or weekly)

This will give you and your team all the performance feedback needed to be able to flag issues early and identify opportunities for improvement.

The key indicator for identifying issues is what we call productive hours. If an activity was estimated to take 40 hours and is 50% complete, the productive hours used for this activity is 20 hours. If a team member had 40 workable hours in a week, and only worked on that activity, you know there is an issue. So for example, a team member spends 40 hours on the activity but only completes 50% of the work. So either the estimation was wrong or the team member is not performing up to the standard. The intention should now be to work together to correct the situation and identify improvements.

A great tool to help identify improvements is the fish bone diagram. It helps with brainstorming what the underlying causes of the performance are. Is it People related, Tools, Process? If People is a factor, what about it? Training, motivation, communication, access to information, manpower?

Without having this performance feedback information, it's really hard for the team to know what to aim for, how it is doing and to have a discussion about performance. According to Gilbert, having the information in itself will improve your team's performance. Ideally, it enables a high level of team autonomy and self-management, continuously improving performance.

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