Four Actions to Consider Before Adding Headcount

We are running forty days behind plan,” complained Jeremy the plant manager. We’ve applied lean manufacturing concepts. We’ve reduced cycle time.  We’ve maxed out overtime.  Our only hope of catching up is to add people.”

“How many?” asked the site manager.

“At least thirty full-time plant workers.”

“How long to catch up after we get the thirty on board?”

“Should be meeting schedule in about four months after all are hired.”

After considerable debate, the site manager reluctantly agreed to add thirty employees. Fast forward six months. The additional wages and benefits spiked labor costs. And the plant is still forty days behind.

An influx of new people almost always challenges quality and safety practices, teamwork suffers, meeting time increases, decisions drag out, disruptive behaviors surface, and customer and vendor coordination requires more time.

Before adding headcount, in small or large segments, consider four actions.

1. Replace inadequate producers who have been given several chances.
2. Remove support personnel who are not critical and replace with operators.
3. Eliminate bureaucratic approval processes that bog down decisions.
4. Evaluate supervisors and replace those who are not effective leaders.

Should you still think you need to add employees, be deliberate and select carefully.


Can We Just Eliminate Annual Performance Appraisals?

“Over my career,” a manager confided, “I’ve done hundreds of annual performance reviews.  I can’t remember the last time that an employee made significant and lasting behavior changes as a result of one.”

Another manager reported, “We had so many complaints about our appraisals, we appointed a task team to develop a new form.  After many hours of deliberation, followed by training on the new process, we rolled out the program.  Everyone was excited at first; but after a year, complaints whelped up again.”

“I spent hours preparing data to support my ratings,” said another.  “I don’t think it helped at all.  Employees who disagreed still argued and whined about low ratings.”

No one pays attention to annual appraisals until they do.  When managers become unhappy with an employee, the appraisal emerges as documentation to justify termination.  Employees know this.  That is why many get defiantly defensive about low ratings.

For these reasons, Deloitte, Accenture, Gap, Lear, General Electric, and many others have dropped their annual appraisal process.

I think brief, monthly employee reviews are less stressful and much more meaningful than annual appraisal rituals.  Consider questions like, “What were your two most important achievements last month?  What are you planning to focus on next month?”

Confirm what you agree with.  Discuss your disagreements.  This approach is quicker, less stressful and more meaningful.


You Are Only as Good as Your Team

At the time Helena was promoted to supervisor, the crew was successfully assembling about thirty vacuum cleaner components per shift—the lowest among twelve teams at three different sites.

“I knew I had to do something,” said Helena.  “I began coaching our slower, mistake-prone employees.  Most appreciated my help.  We did reduce our rework a bit and assemblies increased to about thirty-three per shift–still way to low.”

Eventually, Helena extended her training efforts to all employees.  Most seemed thankful but production remained flat.

Next, Helena began strictly enforcing attendance policies.  “Some employees grumbled,” she said.  “A couple quit. Four weeks later we were producing only about thirty-five assemblies per shift.”

“Having run out of options,” Helena lamented, “I bit the bullet and released two of my lowest performers.  I felt bad.  I knew they had bills to pay but they just couldn’t do the work.”

Over the next few months, Helena replaced more low producers with better workers.  Production quickly improved to forty per shift.  And after two more months, Helena’s team set a company record of fifty-two units.

As Dominique Wilkins, the former NBA basketball great said, “You are only as good as your team.”

To Get “Buy-In,” Ask People To Do What They Are Capable of Doing

Shortly after Julie Walsh assumed the role of plant manager, she discussed with her front-line supervisors the need to reduce rework.

“During the last three quarters,” Julie announced, “only about fifty percent of our product passes all inspections on the first effort.  I think we need to get this down to ten percent by the end of six months.”

“That’s too much,” responded a supervisor.  “We won’t get buy-in from our employees.”

“How do you suggest we get buy-in?”

“Well, I think we need to discuss these metrics with the employees and get their suggestions on what is realistic.”

“Based on my experiences, with the changes we are implementing, I believe this is realistic.”

“You may think the goal is realistic, but I’m not sure our employees think it is.”

Push back is common when leaders ask employees to step up their performances.  Many leaders respond by asking employees for their opinions.  This usually results in some haggling followed by an eventual compromise and grumbling on all sides.

Leaders, in my view, have a good idea of what their people are capable of achieving.  When leaders’ and employees’ perceptions differ, as they often do; I say leaders should stick with their opinions.

At the end of the period, we may hear from employees, “I didn’t think we could do it.”  From leaders, the winning comment is, “I knew you could.”

Avoid Complaining, Explaining and Blaming

During a regular monthly meeting, the general manager (GM) prodded division manager Darrel Winston.  “Darrel,” said the GM, “your actual- to-planned revenue is underwater.”

“I know,” complained Darrel,” I’m dealing with some new customer contacts and they are questioning everything.  Every time new people come on board, they think they have to rework our agreements.”

The next month, Darrel is behind again and he explained, “Well, it took me awhile to reassure my new contacts.  That has caused a delay in approving shipments.  I think my numbers will look pretty good next month.”

But Darrel’s numbers did not look so good the following month and Darrel blamed regulations.  “The new environmental regulations are ridiculous.  I’ve spent a full two weeks compiling data to meet some bureaucrat’s red tape demands.”

Low performers who react by complaining, explaining or blaming see themselves as victims–as in “Woe is me; I must be the unluckiest human on the planet.”

Victims are not motivated to change their behaviors.  Rather, they focus on selling their victimhood and escaping accountability.   From low performers, I want to hear sincere commitments to improve supported by thoughtful actions intended to put a charge in their performance.

As one wit said, “Just because you can explain what happened does not mean that you get to keep your job.”

Leaders Don’t Get Too Far Ahead of the Herd

Because the firm had been performing like an eighth-place team in an eight-team league, the board fired the president and hired Eldrin Wassermann.

Mr. Wassermann, who looked, dressed and talked like a leader announced in an all-hands meeting, “Our goal is to be number one in our industry.  We have a plan for increasing sales by twenty percent next year and we are going to double our revenue in three years.”

Wassermann refurbished facilities, ordered new technology, redid the landscaping, painted everything and transformed meetings into motivational speeches.

Year One sales increased only five percent; Year Two sales increased three percent.  Midway through Year Three, the board removed Wassermann.

Wassermann had a dreamy and unrealistic view of what he could accomplish.  Pie-in-the-sky visions are not enough for success; reality engulfs them in a beat down.  No matter the enthusiasm or the charisma, leaders cannot perform miracles simply by announcing they are going to perform a miracle.

Leaders who try to go from worst to first overnight get too far ahead of reality.  The team soon loses focus and commitment wanders.  Frustration follows.  Bickering, blaming and covering up sap energies.  If you are in tenth place, figure out how to get to ninth place and then learn how to be a little better the next year.

As the late Will Rogers said, “If you are riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to see if it is still there.”


Do You Participate in “Passing the Trash”?

In a hallway conversation Alberta said to a peer, “I’m having trouble with Wilks (an employee).  The Western Division manager highly recommended him.  He said Wilks would like to move to my territory because it was closer to home. I think Wilks is capable but his performance is pretty weak.”

The peer responded, “Well, why don’t you recommend him to another department?”

“I’ve thought about it.  It’s going to be hard to terminate Wilks.  Maybe he would work better under a different manager.”

Alberta faces a common dilemma.  If she recommends Wilks to another group, Alberta is just passing the problem along.  If Alberta recommends termination for Wilks, it looks like she is unable to get Wilks to perform.  Recall Wilk’s previous manager gave him a good recommendation.  If Alberta accepts Wilks’ sub-par performance, it will be unfair to others in her group.

I suggest that Alberta communicate clear expectations to Wilks.  If Wilks does not meet these expectations, he would be subject to consequences–including termination.  Alberta should also communicate to the Western Division Manager and to her immediate manager what she plans to do.

Because of the energy and effort it takes to terminate employees, I think too many large organizations handle problematic employees by continuing to move them from one position to another.  Employees refer to a once-popular card game–“Pass the Trash,”–to label this management practice.