Understanding the Role of Six Sigma in Improving HR Processes: The Performance Review Debate

Editor’s note: Of late, much discussion on this site has focused on the weaknesses of performance reviews due to faulty processes.

This article attempts to shed some light, in a general way, on the subject of process improvement and how relates to performance reviews.

By now, most people are familiar with the need for improving, radically changing and controlling processes. The works of W. Edwards Deming, Michael Hammer, Joseph Juran and dozens of others have focused on a very fundamental truth: The main source of waste and inefficiencies are problems in the process.

Before we begin, it would be helpful to define the term "process." Here goes: A process is a repeatable sequence of operations, organized to produce a set of desired outcomes.

Interestingly, when organizations first analyze their critical processes they are usually struck by how complex they are. Many processes that are absolutely central to the success of an organization were not designed; they just evolved. They consist of activities passed on from one generation of managers and workers to the next.

(It should be duly noted that there are several approaches to analyzing a process. In many cases, more than one approach may be needed. The two most popular approaches are process flow charts and control charts.)

Indeed, W. Edwards Deming's primary method of process analysis and improvement was dependent upon the use of statistical control charting—a technique developed by Walter Shewhart in the 1920s when at Bell Laboratories. (In this article, we discuss only process flow charting.)

Once organizations understand the complexities of the processes they use, they're not surprised at the frequency with which defects and problems emerge. In fact, after making a flow chart of mission-critical processes, executives are surprised that they're still in business.

Working Smarter Not Harder

The central message of today's Lean Six Sigma/process management experts is that it is sheer folly to expect that incentives, reprimands and other devices to improve performance will work. Why? If the process within which work is being produced is flawed, it is impossible to achieve desired results.

If quality or expected performance is below expectations when people do their jobs as designed, then asking them to "do better" is managerial nonsense. The process must be significantly improved or redesigned. Doing the job right when saddled with a flawed process inevitably results in sub-standard performance.

One of the key messages of Deming was "Quality problems are the fault of management, not workers." Why? Because it's management's responsibility to streamline or reengineer processes.

Deming was critical of performance reviews. Poor performance, he reasoned, was the result of a poorly designed process or a process that has become burdened with non- productive activities.

In short, performance reviews focus on the individual, not the system. The only way to improve performance is to understand and correct the process that generates problems. Fix the process, and the problems will vanish.