The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

What to Do When Individual Performance is Exceptional (outside normal variation)

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W. Edwards Deming wrote that most of the results are due to the system and blaming people for those results was not effective. He also wrote that sometimes employees were outside control limits (evidence of a special cause existed). When those employees were failing to do their jobs adequately they need special help (often they are just not trained properly, occasionally they were placed in a job they just are not able to do acceptably).

What did Dr. Deming say about employees who were exceptional (where evidence of a positive special cause)?

He said to study what makes them that way and adopt what allows them to get great results in your system. Determining real exceptional performance is very hard (we way over estimate “special cause performance” – we credit, or blame, people for variation, or a good/bad economy etc.). I would estimate the vast majority of time taken to decide if someone’s performance is outside the norms of the system is wasteful, leads to a huge amount of false positives, and creates other problems in the organization. I wouldn’t waste time on it. But I would seek to see what people were doing well (what was getting good results) and see how we could improve by expanding those practices.

Performance of the individual cannot be measured, except on a long-term basis, for which I mean 15, 18, 20 years.

W. Edwards Deming, page 53 The Essential Deming “Present Practices and Better Practices” – from a presentation at a seminar for CEOs, “Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position,” 1992.

Even if we successfully identify “special cause” performance over the long term, unpacking what to learn and adapt from great performers is very hard.

photo of a butterfly on a flower

Photo of a butterfly feeding on a flower in Cambodia, by John Hunter.

Much of what makes them exceptional can be adopted by others. But some of what makes people exceptional is not easy to adapt to others – the people are just amazing in a complex array of ways that are not easy for others to incorporate. But even in those cases, aspects of what leads that person to get amazing results can be learned from and adopted.


What leads them to be tremendously successful is often the interaction of many things. And the interaction isn’t just their traits, it includes the conditions within which they are acting (so they might be exceptionally great in running Bell Labs but moved to another environment they are not exceptional). They often will be conscious of some of what they do, but also will subconsciously adapt to the system they are in (which means even asking them is not going to provide workable practices to adapt). Adapting 3 of the 10 things sometimes can be very useful, other times those 3 absent the other 7 are actually counter-productive.

Some of what you can learn and adapt from exceptional performers is fairly obvious. But those are normally things people already know, but often fail to do well. So you see that successful leaders develop their people and gain their trust. They create an environment where people take pride in their work, feel free to take risks, are confident their future is secure, etc.. We know this is good. We know various practices to help create such an environment. We also often don’t do it very well as we get distracted by daily fires or are impatient or…

So Dr. Deming would say, just as with any positive special cause, the correct action is to evaluate what worked well and try to adapt the system to incorporate that positive special cause so that future results are improved. However, determining that a person is truly outside the system is very hard (and is just going to be opinion, it seems to me) and it is a very long term process. In my opinion, we are better off learning what practices are working well and adopting those and not worrying about whether a person is producing results outside the system.

Related: Is the Result Due to Mathematical Probability or Individual Merit?If you use the PDSA to test a theory and get a result that is not expected this should cause you to adjust your theory and improve your understanding.Dr. Deming on Leadership

See discussion on The W. Edwards Deming Institute Linked In group (you must be logged in to view the discussion).


Categorised as: Dr. Deming, systems thinking, understanding variation


3 Comments

  1. I think it’s also part of the manager’s role to help each person identify their own “comparative advantage” and to ensure that they’re deployed appropriately. It’s something individuals seldom ask themselves but is central to maximising the wealth and satisfaction of the individual and the system.

    You can understand comparative advantage by thinking about an 80 year old and a 20 year old shipwrecked together on a desert island. In general, the 20 year old may be much better at almost everything that needs to be done in a shipwreck, including cooking and housekeeping. However, it is inefficient to leave everything to him. Even if he is superior in all departments. There are some things, cooking and housekeeping, that the 80 year old can take on to maximise the benefit of both, leaving hunting to the 20 year old.

  2. […] John Hunter of The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog explores how Deming would respond in What to Do When Individual Performance is Exceptional. […]

  3. For example, a likely scenarios might be that I learned and applied new skills (say learning the awesome Ruby programing language) and have used that skill to provide more value to the company…

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