We should fire him for not hitting his targets…or should we?

Being a Finance Director or CFO means you spend a lot of your time working out what people’s targets should be, tracking their performance against those targets, and reporting any under-performance.

While there are some intellectual challenges to the target setting process, those are generally within the control of the Finance Director or CFO as they are working on a model they built themselves.

What’s much harder to assess is what…if anything…it means when people don’t hit their targets and what…if anything…the business should do about it.

But wait, I hear you say, if someone doesn’t hit their targets, shouldn’t we send them on their way and find someone else who can deliver what we need instead?

If only life was that simple.

Firstly, there’s an underlying assumption here that the person you’ll bring in instead will do a better job than the person you get rid of. I’ve seen this hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times and all I can say is that in a significant number of those cases that assumption turns out to be wildly over-optimistic.

There’s also an assumption that the reason for under-performance is the fault of the individual. This is often overly simplistic. Yes, maybe you have other people who can hit their targets, which in your mind means it isn’t impossible for everyone to do so. But perhaps there are other factors which mean that in practice not everybody can.

In a surprising number of cases, a thorough investigation into the reasons for an apparent under-performance throws up some systems or process issues outside the control of the staff member which means they were never going to achieve the targets which had been set.

Of course, statistics cuts both ways, so just as there are people who vastly under-perform against some sort of average, there will be people who vastly out-perform. That, after all, is how calculating an average works – there will always be some people above the line as well as some people below the line.

So just not hitting a target (which is nearly always calculated as an average of some sort) doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all. I once heard a speaker say that at school he was in the 10% of the class that made the top 90% possible.

It was a matter of fact that he was below the class average, but statistics says that any time you measure the performance of a group of people, somewhere around 50% of them will probably be below the average of the group as a whole, and a broadly similar proportion will be above it.

The degree of variation is the key here.

W. Edwards Deming’s work on statistical control is the definitive manual on acceptable degrees of variation in work performance. I won’t go into the maths in detail here, but in Deming’s book “Out Of The Crisis” he shows how to calculate the level of acceptable variance in a stable system that’s operating under statistical process.

In our modern world full of “knowledge work” this is less obvious than when people are watching over car parts hurtling down a high-speed factory production line. But exactly the same principles apply.

In Deming’s world, the acceptable degree of performance around an average, or arithmetic mean if we’re being statistical about it, was +/- 3 times the square root of the average actual performance. (Please note that whatever you had set as a target isn’t relevant for this purpose as there may be factors affecting the group as a whole, either positively or negatively, which could make any target either too easy or too difficult to achieve.)

When you work through the maths, you’ll realise that the boundaries for acceptable performance are much wider than businesses typically allow in their performance management systems where amounts somewhere between 0% and 5% tend to be arbitrarily used to determine an acceptable degree of shortfall, if any, in meeting targets.

Deming’s view, as one of the foremost management thinkers of all time, is that the responsibility for under-performance is more often down to management’s poor understanding of the laws of statistics and unwillingness to improve the systems and processes used in the business which would raise the standards of everyone working in it.

And if you don’t think that’s possible, have a chat with your front line staff and your customers. I can guarantee they’ve got a long list of things that would help the business run more smoothly, even if you can’t immediately think of anything.

That’s not your fault. If you’re not working on the front line you’ve no way of knowing what that experience is like.

But it is your fault if you never ask the people who do work there how to make things better for them, and, in the long run, for the business too.

So next time someone isn’t meeting their targets what should you do?

Apply a bit of Deming’s thinking, even if just in concept without getting too deep into the statistical modelling, to work out whether the problem is really with the member of staff or with the systems and processes instead, even if other people are somehow able to achieve the targets.

Perhaps without realising it you just got lucky in the employee lottery and ended up hiring a bunch of people who happened to be unusually good performers who somehow managed to get the results you were hoping for in your initial planning assumptions.

More often than not firing people is a very expensive way of trying to solve a problem. Studies have shown that the cost of recruiting and training a new person to replace someone who’s left can equate to between six and twelve months’ salary.

And if all you end up with is someone the same or only slightly better…which statistically is a likely outcome…all you’re doing is loading cost into the business for no meaningful return.

So next time you’re wondering whether to fire someone who isn’t meeting their target, pause for breath. It’s probably not going to help solve whatever you think the problem is.

For sure, it’s harder work getting stuck into the issues and unpicking whatever is getting in the way of people hitting their targets. But it’s the only way to fix the problem for good.

Maybe a few exceptional performers can hit the targets anyway, even with less-than-perfect systems and processes to support them, Building your business model on the basis that every person you hire will turn out to be an exceptional performer is an assumption I’ve seen many business make, explicitly or implicitly. Although I’ve yet to see one where that superficially reasonable-sounding objective was ever their experience in reality.

Mostly those businesses were on a perpetual “hire ’em and fire ’em” cycle which led to enormous hidden costs within the business…bloated HR departments to handle all the hiring and firing, costs for advertising vacancies, reductions in customer loyalty and lifetime value as a result of putting rafts of under-trained, less-experienced new hires on the customer service front line and many other costs that dragged the business down, although they never appeared explicitly on anyone’s budget report. (If they had, someone would have done something about it long before now.)

Don’t be that business. Next time someone appears to be performing poorly, break out a calculator and see how the numbers stack up first. The staff member may well be doing their best in a difficult situation…the problem may, in reality, be something else.

I can’t claim statistics is always fun. But, done properly, I can claim that it helps prevent making the same mistake over and over again without realising it…which has got to be a good move for your business.

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash )

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