How to Help an Employee Struggling with Work Quality

by Bruce Tulgan3 Min Read

Quality means “negative error rate per labor unit.” To determine an employee’s error rate, you need to ask: How many errors does an employee make in a defined unit of labor? (A unit of labor might be a particular amount of time, a particular quantity of results, or a number of specified concrete actions.)

The first solution to consider when it comes to the employee with a high error rate is retraining. Employees often find themselves charged with tasks and responsibilities for which they’ve received little or no training. They haven’t been given the information to master or the techniques to practice, sufficient to develop the basic knowledge and skill to do the work. If there is a high concentration fo employees with high error rates, there is a good chance the training was insufficient. Indeed, even if the training was great, ask yourself, “Can anyone really get really good at anything after just one class?” Retraining will improve just about anybody’s performance, at least for a while, simply by refreshing and refocusing, increasing awareness and mindfulness. Not to mention some of those basic bits of knowledge and skill necessary to do the job. Plus retraining sends a message that doing it right really matters.

Maybe you don’t have the resources to retrain employees formally in the work environment. But you can have checklists and your regular ongoing one-on-one dialogue. The continuous reminders and reinforcement of performance coaching is a lot like regular continuous retraining.

What is baffling to some managers is the employee who obviously knows exactly what she is doing and still makes lots of mistakes. She knows the task by heart. She’s done it a zillion times. Often this is an employee who is so confident in her competence that she moves through the steps in each task almost automatically, thinking she could do it in her sleep. So she sometimes does. And that’s when the errors occur.

You need that employee to wake up. Keep a bright light on everything that employee does. Scrutiny alone can have a huge impact on an employee’s attention to detail: if I know someone is keeping a close eye on my performance, I am likely to keep a closer eye on it myself.

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Scrutiny, though, is only step one. Don’t get stuck in another version of staring at the numbers together. Metrics in hand, show the employee her error rate and tell her explicitly, “Too many errors.” If the employee says, “Yes, I know. I’m trying,” and then next week you have the same conversation, then the wake-up call alone isn’t doing the trick. In that case, you need to use the metrics to develop good course-correcting feedback to help the employee figure out how to make fewer errors.

The answer is almost always, “Slow down and think about what you are doing.” The metrics should help you zero in on exactly where and when this particular employee needs to slow down and think, at least for now. That may turn out to be a moving target. That’s OK – that’s the whole point of metrics and coaching.

Let’s say this week you are going to work on quality. In your regular one-on-one dialogue, start focusing on the goal of eliminating recurring errors, one by one:

  • Spend some time with this employee and together conduct an audit of her work product. Get inside the metrics, paying very close attention to the details
  • Take it one task at a time. Review the employee’s work in progress. Watch the employee do the task, or tasks, in question multiple times. Is the employee following a checklist?
  • Look at the employee’s every concrete action in the process. Check it against the best practices, step by step, concrete action by concrete action. Do a micro-gap analysis. Start coaching to fill the gaps. If needed, take each item on the checklist and break it down into smaller pieces so there is a mini-checklist for each item
  • Every step of the way, make sure the employee is actually using the checklists. You might even encourage the employee to make notes for themselves to help remember their own personal challenges. Then you can use those notes as a tool to guide your coaching conversations
  • If the employee appears to be following best practices, start looking for pitfalls. Zero in on exactly where and when the most frequent mistakes are occurring. Try to figure out exactly what’s going wrong
  • Choose one concrete action at a time to make error free, and take it slowly. What if the employee could eliminate just one recurring error per week?
  • Once you’ve increased the quality of one task, move on to the next task. And so on
  • Every step of the way, remember to monitor the productivity of this person’s work to make sure it doesn’t dip, and acknowledge her continued high speed, even as her pace slows down just enough to dot her I’s and cross her t’s on that checklist

Everybody gets sloppy once in a while. That’s why you need to keep your people awake and mindful and focused on the details every step of the way. One person at a time, one day at a time.

Bruce Tulgan

@BruceTulgan | LinkedIn | Website | Email

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders, best-selling author and keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company.

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