Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Diagnosing Organizational Ills

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To help, or at least to do no harm” –

Epidemics, Book I, Section V of the Hippocratic Corpus

A few weeks ago I had a chance to try out the heath care system in New York.  I went to bed with some lower back pain. Thinking it was from stretching for burned out light bulbs I changed earlier in the day I ignored it. I woke up at 3:00 am with the back pain intensified and now intense stomach pain as well.

I had a client presentation that morning so I took some aspirin and thought I could run into the city do the presentation and get home and be sick for a while with whatever this was.  At 5:00 am with the pain continuing to intensify, I woke up my wife and said that something was going on. She took one look at me and said I had to go to the hospital.

We got to the hospital at about 5:30 am and I saw the ER doc. He ran blood tests, a CAT scan, EKG, took X-rays. Everything seemed within normal limits. The pain was now under control because of the meds I was getting through an IV.

He was ready to release me, and since it was now about 3:00 pm, I was ready to go home, but I started to throw up (reverse peristalsis if you want to be proper), so he called in a surgical consult. They guy on duty happened to be the head of surgery for the hospital. I described the symptoms and he was able to immediately diagnose me saying it was likely my gall bladder, he ordered an ultrasound to verify it. It showed an inflamed gall bladder with stones lodged in the ducts. So after spending the entire day in the ER without a successful diagnosis once someone familiar with the illness asked the right questions, heard the problem and examined me a diagnosis was had in relatively short order.

Does this kind of experience transfer over to diagnosing organizational problems and enhancing organizational performance? I think so, but let’s examine it a bit.

Over the years I have been asked to use surveys to accomplish many differing organizational goals as well as diagnostics. The rationale has ranged from measuring employee satisfaction, commitment or engagement to enhancing effectiveness and decision making, improving quality (TQM), or communications,  decreasing turnover, evaluating merger effectiveness/success, senior management effectiveness, strategy effectiveness/implementation, and customer service ability or providing organizational assurance against policy objectives, and even providing a platform for dialog. These are the more generic reason why organizations have hired me to do surveys there also exist more topic specific reasons such as: measuring ethics/SOX compliance, assessing benefits (types and levels to be offered through conjoint analysis), transparency of practices, communications vehicle evaluation, even employee personality traits.

What always struck me as odd were that the companies came to me with these specific rationales, often times saying something like “we want to measure effectiveness, we are definitely not interested in measuring satisfaction – sometimes derogatorily called a ‘smile survey’ ”, (the well done satisfaction surveys were never smile surveys). And yet if you looked at a well done effectiveness survey and a well done satisfaction survey you would find 95% or so item overlap. In other words, the items used to measure satisfaction and effectiveness are the same survey items. Going further, it always seems a bit ludicrous to me to think you could measure effectiveness without measuring satisfaction as though dissatisfied employees could be effective or create an effective organization, or that those things that make an organization effective may be different from those that make an employee satisfied. They are the same! And in fact many if not all of the organizational goals listed above are so intertwined that measuring one component without taking into consideration the larger context will run the risk of not being able to properly diagnose or will results in a misdiagnosis and hence inappropriate action being taken on the part of the organization (they may go home rather than having their gall bladder removed). This would be the case if you are examining the results from a very high level, say total line or whether you are delving into the bowels of the organization.

This is also closely related to my reluctance to rely on indices. Indices are attractive, they are sexy (as much as that is possible for a number), an index gives you something to hang your hat upon and say “we were 63 last year and this year we are 66, we are improving”. But the index number can hide a lot of complexity going on beneath the surface. At the hospital 4 out of 5 of the tests ran upon me were in the normal range, if they were placed into an index I would probably have been sent home. But the last test, the ultrasound showed a problem that needed to be resolved. Just as a single survey item might show a problem that needs to be resolved within an organization, a survey item that can get lost within an index. And even if the index was low and a cause of concern, it would not be known what actions should be taken based upon the index, what should drive corrective action is the individual item score, the individual item that indicated that safety or customer focus or constipated decision making were in need of improvement. The individual items if worded well are very directional.

I believe that there is one underlying rationale of all of the rationales given to me for the reason for conducting employee surveys that allows them to hang together in a commonsensical form; that rationale is one of organizational effectiveness. Organizations have many different constituents and are pulled in many different directions at the same time, but from what I have seen those organizations that have effectiveness as an overriding paradigm generally excel in many other areas as well. Effectiveness and in general organizational culture I believe is driven by 3 main components and one outcome: Message, Performance, Future and Outcomes. A very simplified depiction of the MPFO framework:

  • Message: Am I sending the right message in a consistent fashion throughout my organization? Do people know what they are supposed to be accomplishing?
  • Performance: Are people getting what they need (in the broadest sense) to be able to deliver on that message – to get the job done?
  • Future: Do people feel recognized and feel like they have a future with this organization?

In the center, of the overlap of Message, Performance, Future, is “Optimum Performance”, is where Organizational Effectiveness resides. There are specific survey items that can be used to measure each of the main circles above and to measure the outcomes that fall within the overlapping center.

Just as having an expert review your case and asking for the right test to verify a diagnosis, asking the right questions in the right framework along with a powerful analysis goes a long way towards correct organizational diagnosis and is the basic building block of organizational improvement.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 23, 2009 at 10:42 am

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