Total Quality or Performance Appraisal: Choose One

Many teachers of total quality, following the lead of W. Edwards Deming, suggest that TQM and performance appraisal are incompatible. Indeed, Deming lists "evaluation of performance, merit rating and annual review" as the third of his "Seven Deadly Diseases." Why can't TQM and performance appraisal co-exist? At the center of the case against performance appraisal are the fundamental values and principles of TQM. TQM requires customer-consciousness, systems-thinking, an understanding of variation, an appreciation of teamwork, a mastery of improvement methods, and an understanding of the process of personal motivation and learning. These very requirements of TQM are subverted by performance appraisal. TQM requires us to understand, control, and improve processes for the benefit of the customer. Performance appraisal aims at controlling an individual's behavior to the satisfaction of his or her manager. The two approaches represent a fundamental choice for leaders: one or the other; not both.

While TQM-bashing has recently become fashionable in U.S. business periodicals, the total quality movement is alive and well. Companies like Harley Davidson, Motorola, and Xerox--who understand TQM--aren't bashing total quality. And one doesn't hear of the demise of Japan's total quality control efforts. What we are witnessing is the American appetite for fads. Those who never understood quality in the first place and trivialized it in the second place are now declaring it dead.

Total quality is a compelling and simple approach to management. When intelligently applied, the basic principles of TQM will, however, fundamentally change the way a conventional manager thinks about the nature of work and the purpose of leadership. This fundamental change requires managers to relinquish the old set of premises--the old paradigm--and struggle to understand, internalize and apply a new approach--what Brian Joiner of Joiner Associates calls fourth-generation management. Deming says, "What is required is nothing less than the transformation of Western management." Many managers have learned the rhetoric of total quality and adopted programs to apply TQM to their companies. But relatively few have appreciated the profoundly different approach it requires of those who must lead.

"I believe most of what Deming teaches," is commonly heard from managers. "I agree with ten or twelve of his fourteen points." While adherence to ten or twelve is better than none, these managers fail to see that the fourteen points are an interdependent, integrated whole. If you pull out one row in this tapestry, it unravels. When people reject any of Deming's teachings, it usually is point 12b: Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.

Among Deming's Deadly Diseases is listed: "...Evaluation of performance, merit rating or annual review." Why is performance appraisal, which often leads to some type of merit pay increase or other reward, on Deming's list of things not to do? Why is this time-honored American business practice seen as incompatible with total quality? And if businesses don't conduct performance appraisals, what should they do instead?

Principles at the Heart of Quality

There are principles at the heart of quality that establish a foundation for the new philosophy and, indirectly, the basis for rejecting performance appraisal. These principles are extracted from the teachings of Deming and other originators of total quality:

Principle 1. The customers and their needs shape our organization and its work, not vice versa. Principle 2. Quality products and services result from quality systems, processes, and methods.

Principle 3. Quality is the all-consuming focus of the organization.

Principle 4. An organization achieves quality by mastering the methods of improvement.

Principle 5. An organization pursuing quality directs and focuses its energies.

Principle 6. There is a new paradigm of leadership. Managers must reformulate what it means to lead.

What is Meant by Performance Appraisal?

What exactly is this management intervention that undermines total quality?  It has various names: performance appraisal, performance evaluation, performance management, and coaching and counseling, among others. No  matter what the name is, several characteristics are common to all such programs:

  1. The focus is on an individual's work.
    • Sometimes a team is evaluated instead of or along with the individual. Team evaluation is not a significant improvement over individual evaluation.
  2. There are expectations or standards of performance.
    • The standards are usually explicit and specific, a form of performance contract for which the employee is accountable.
    • Sometimes the standards are imposed on the employee, sometimes they are negotiated, sometimes the standards are a combination of the two. Having the standards be negotiated does not avoid the problems of performance appraisal.
    • Sometimes the measures are implicit--for example, the employee's job description.
  3. There are usually two sessions between the employee and the evaluator: one to establish the standards and another to review performance.
    • The most common unit of reviewed performance is one year (the annual review).
    • A six-month review is the next most common.
    • In sales-dominated jobs, the period of performance is often as short as a month or a week.
    • Some organizations omit the standard-setting conference.
  4. The evaluator is usually the person who has line management authority over the one evaluated.
    • Some organizations have peer review and some have a review of supervisors by subordinates. These do not avoid the problems of performance evaluation.
  5. The evaluation session usually results in some written conclusion--some paper trail regarding the performance of the person reviewed.
    • Some organizations express a specific or an overall rating with a numbered scale.
    • Some use gradations of rhetoric (from "exceeds standards" to "needs help," for example).
    • Some organizations have forced ranking that requires managers to distribute the rankings of employees to conform to some model, such as a bell-shaped distribution.
  6. There are various consequences of appraisal.
    • Some organizations attach merit pay or some other type of pay-for-performance directly to the appraisal. (This includes commissions on sales.)
    • When appraisal affects salary it can indirectly affect pension, if pension is affected by salary.
    • Many companies use appraisals as a basis for determining the promotability of an employee.
    • Some companies use appraisals as a basis for layoffs. IBM, for example, has used performance appraisals as a basis for eliminating 5 percent of its work force.

    The suggestion to eliminate performance appraisal often provokes an almost visceral reaction. One manager responded to objections to performance appraisal with, "Boy! You ask people to do a little work and they rise in rebellion." In his mind, he equated performance appraisal with hard work. For him, the only reason someone would resist performance appraisal would be to avoid work.

    Below are some important distinctions to make when sorting out the questions and resistance related to performance appraisal. The left-hand column represents values and methods consistent with TQM. The right-hand column represents values and methods rooted in the old paradigm.

    Someone can support...
    While opposing...
    Giving direction to the work force.Directing individuals.
    Controlling processes.Controlling people.
    Employees receiving judgment on systems/processes.Employees receiving judgment on themselves.
    Feedback based on the needs of customers and the key process indicators.Feedback based on personal characteristics not relevant to the work.
    Feedback from parts of the system that receive one's work (internal customers). Feed-down from the next layer up in the hierarchy.
    Feedback useful for improvement.Feedback used for ratings, rewards, and sanctions.
    Supporting workers' inherent motivation.Motivating or de-motivating workers.

    The Case Against Performance Appraisal

    Here, then, is what is wrong with performance appraisal. In the era of total quality, performance appraisal supports obsolete values with dysfunctional methods. Specifically, performance appraisal

    1. Disregards and, in fact, undermines, teamwork.
    2. Disregards the existence of a system. It encourages individuals to squeeze or circumvent the system for personal gain rather than improve it for collective gain.
    3. Disregards variability in the system and, indeed, increases variability in the system.
    4. Uses a measurement system that is unreliable and inconsistent.
    5. Encourages an approach to problem-solving that is superficial and culprit-oriented.
    6. Tends to establish an aggregate of safe goals -- a ceiling of mediocrity -- in an organization.
    7. Creates losers, cynics, and wasted human resources.
    8. Seeks to provide a means to administer multiple managerial functions (pay, promotion, feedback communications, direction-setting, etc.), yet it is inadequate to accomplish any one of them.

    Let us briefly examine each item:

    1. Performance appraisal disregards and, in fact, undermines, teamwork. Many who seem to be solo performers are actually individual contributors to a group effort, regardless of whether that group is a formally constituted team. When one individual's contribution is evaluated, we must pretend that we can extract from the net outcome that specific value contributed uniquely by that person and not attribute to him or her those contributions for which others deserve credit or discredit.

      Some managers want to give recognition to each individual who participates on some successful project team. But true teamwork usually has larger boundaries than this. Chances are each member of that team could participate only by shifting some normal job duties onto others who aren't on the team. Who, then, gets credit?

      Performance appraisal undermines teamwork when an employee must choose between attending to his or her individual job standards -- on which salary and promotability often depend -- or attending to the needs of the team. In such circumstances, the team's needs will suffer. In the spring of 1991, Gallery Furniture in Houston, Texas, eliminated performance appraisal, quotas, and pay for performance (commissions and bonuses). All the measures of business performance improved. But what surprised management most was the teamwork that developed among the salespeople who previously saw each other as competitors. The old system stifled cooperation and teamwork.

    2. Performance appraisal disregards the existence of a system. It encourages individuals to squeeze or circumvent the system for personal gain rather than improve it for collective gain. All of us, in doing our jobs, work within a system that consists of:
      • The organization's policies and procedures that guide and constrain our work.
      • Budgets and staffing that provide capability to do work and constraints on what can be done.
      • The methods for maintaining and communicating customer awareness and market knowledge
      • Long-, medium-, and short-term plans giving direction, focus, and priority to the organization.
      • The facilities, machinery, and equipment we use and the capability and workability of these.
      • Maintenance methods and procedures.
      • The materials and supplies provided for our use.
      • The established methods for doing various tasks and the training provided in those methods.
      • The environment of the organization: the unwritten rules of the informal organization that constitute the everyday workplace experience of the mass of employees (the organization's "culture").
      • The modes of communication, the accessibility of information, and the receptiveness to feedback and suggestions.
      • Every step of work that precedes the point in which we -- individually or as a group -- get involved.
      • The designs of products and services and the designing of the processes to develop and deliver these products and services. Performance appraisal pretends that the reviewer can discern an individual's contribution apart from all those influences contributed by the system over which no single manager or worker has control. The parts of the system are interdependent: If I force results here and now, I will pay a price there or later.

        As Brian Joiner emphatically asserts, there are only three ways to get better numbers: (1) improve the system, (2) distort the numbers, or (3) distort the system. Improving systems is much too complex a matter to place on an individual's performance standard. Systems improvement often requires a prolonged cross-functional effort involving many people and led by top managers. Distorting the numbers, a form of creative accounting aimed at looking good rather than doing well, is rampant in American business.

        Given a standard to reduce employee turnover, one vice president of human resources simply changed the formula for calculating turnover. This change reduced the turnover ratio while improving nothing. Distorting the system often occurs because performance appraisal encourages individuals to squeeze or circumvent the system for their short-term individual gain, rather than improve it for collective long-term gain. The sales force pulls out all stops to meet one quarter's sales quota and sales sag in the following quarter.

    3. Performance disregards variability in the system and, indeed, increases variability in the system. All the elements of a system, such as those listed above, are subject to variation. Sometimes variation is due to special causes. For the most part, these are unusual, infrequent events that are relatively easy to identify and sometimes easy to eliminate. (For example, deliveries were late last Tuesday because the truck had a flat.) This is known as special cause variation. Most variation, however, is due to multiple unidentifiable causes. (Delivery is never at an exactly predictable time because of many varying factors: traffic, weather, sizes of orders, etc.) This latter type of variation is called "common cause variation." The performance of each employee is variable and each employee works within a variable system. Managers who don't understand variation and don't know how to use statistical methods to plot variation will not see performance within the context of variation and will tend to treat all unsatisfactory things as special causes attributable to individual workers. ("Those truck drivers are always stopping for coffee. That's why deliveries can't be predicted.")

Flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force had learned from experience that reprimanding student pilots when their performance was poor almost always led to improved performance. On the other hand, complimenting good performance led to deterioration of the student's performance. A psychologist who studied this phenomenon for a year eventually discovered that both students and instructors were inadvertently responding to variation. When performance is at the high point in a system of common cause variation, performance cannot help but get worse.

      Similarly, performance at the low point cannot help but get better. And when does a manager compliment or reprimand? The flight instructors' reprimands for poor performance were the equivalent of superstition. Results are attributed to actions that, in fact, have no influence on the outcome. ("Every time there is trouble, I do this and it works.") Having student pilots kiss the fuselage on bad days would have worked as well as the reprimands. Moreover, unnecessary or misguided management intervention will usually result in increased variation.

    4. Performance appraisal uses a measurement system that is unreliable and inconsistent. Experts in metrology will tell you that if the scales, calipers, and other devices and tests that measure the key dimensions of products were as unstable as our instruments for measuring employee performance, we would go out of business. There is inconsistency between the various reviewers (different philosophies, different "calibrations"), and the same reviewer is inconsistent from one employee to the next.

      A common source of measurement error is the subjective bias of the reviewer. We are not objective in discerning our own subjectivity. Some research in performance evaluation indicates that those who are physically attractive tend to get higher ratings. This is not true, however, for women in management positions, who tend to be rated lower if they are attractive. When seminar participants are asked to identify which of several factors account most for the difference between high-rated and low-rated employees, by far they most often cite "evaluator prejudice."

    5. Performance appraisal encourages an approach to problem-solving that is superficial and culprit-oriented. There is a Japanese technique for problem-solving called "Ask 'Why?' Five times." For example, if there is a puddle of oil on the shop floor,
      1. Why is there oil on the floor? Because the machine is dripping oil.
      2. Why is the machine dripping oil? Because the gasket is leaking.
      3. Why is the gasket leaking? Because it is made of inferior material.
      4. Why do we use gaskets of inferior material? Because the purchasing agent got a good deal on them.
      5. Why is it important for the purchasing agent to get a good deal on gaskets? Because his performance is evaluated on how often he can get good deals on things.

      Conventional problem-solving would ask such questions as: Whose area is this? Who is supposed to replace worn gaskets? We don't ask "why," we ask "who." We don't look for causes in the system, we look for culprits in the work force. Performance appraisal is a "who-based" approach to problem-solving.

    6. Performance appraisal tends to establish an aggregate of safe goals -- a ceiling of mediocrity -- in an organization. This is a corollary to the point made earlier regarding distorting the system.

      If my appraisal affects my income and career goals, I will seek to be measured against standards that are easy to meet or exceed, standards that are easily within the current capability of the systems within which I work. I will pick goals that will not require me to distort the system, distort the numbers, or improve the system. I will create the illusion of challenge around easy targets seldom perceived by the customers as improvement. Now imagine everyone choosing easy targets. The net result is a year without challenge. The collective rhetoric describes highly ambitious goals, but the company and its customers don't advance at all. Individual standards risk the twin perils of distorting the system on the one hand or mediocrity on the other. The only legitimate alternative -- improving the system -- will not result from so simplistic and superficial an approach as performance evaluation.

    7. Performance appraisal creates losers, cynics, and wasted human resources. Most of us believe we deserve to be rated in the top 20 percent of our organization's performers. That means 80 percent of us are in for a shock. How will people react to the news that they are not in the upper 20 percent? Or top one-third? Or not even above average?

      Some will accept the news and feel bad about how inferior they are. Some will deny the news and attribute their low rating to a screwed-up rating system. In either case--losers or cynics--what has the company gained? Even those who get high ratings will suspect that they have benefited from a certain amount of luck. Someone dealt a royal flush, however, doesn't question the legitimacy of the deal...or the game itself.

      Over twenty years ago, researchers began discovering the Pygmalion Effect in management. In his landmark study Pygmalion in Management, Dov Eden describes the effect of self-fulfilling prophecy in work situations. Managers' expectations of subordinates can have a powerful effect on the quality and productivity of work.
To what extent do the expectations of a manager affect his or her evaluation of an employee? To what extent does this evaluation communicate a manager's expectations to that employee and, thereby, shape the employee's future performance? To what extent does his or her perception of a subordinate's performance affect the manager's expectations and, thus, trigger the endless cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies?

      None of these questions has an unequivocal answer, but we do know that positive expectations influence managers' perceptions and evaluations of employee behavior positively, and the negative expectations have adverse effects. Managers engaged in performance appraisal can get trapped in the endless negative spiral.

    8. Performance appraisal seeks to provide a means to administer multiple managerial functions, yet it is inadequate to accomplish any one of them. We don't do anything unless we expect some benefit from it. If we ask managers to list the various ways performance appraisal serves a useful purpose, the response would be a long list:
      • To determine pay.
      • To identify candidates for promotion.
      • To give employees feedback.
      • To provide communications between supervisor and employee.
      • To give direction and focus to employees.
      • To aid in career development.
      • To identify training needs.
    9. The sheer magnitude of this list suggests that the typical four or five hours of conference time per year between supervisor and subordinate is woefully inadequate to the task. If managers spent 400 hours, it would still be insufficient. Performance appraisal is a fragile cart asked to bear too heavy a load.

    What to do Instead?

    There are two alternatives to performance appraisal that managers don't like to hear:
    • Change the way you think. Until managers let go of their obsession with the individual worker and understand the importance of systems and processes, they will not enter the quality era. Without this change in mind-set, managers will continue to look for alternatives that are no different from what they are trying to replace.
    • Just stop doing it. When you are doing something that is demonstrably harmful, you can stop doing it without finding an alternative way to harm yourself. Conventional managers are, in effect, beating their heads against the wall and asking, "If we stop beating our heads against the wall, what will we beat our heads against?"

    One way to develop alternatives to performance appraisal is by debundling. If performance appraisal is a fragile cart asked to carry too heavy a load, we can remove each piece of baggage and build for each a separate vehicle designed specifically for that function. Here are some steps to take in debundling:

    Acknowledge each service and expected benefit as something important for the:

    • Organization to successfully accomplish.
    • Treat each as a separate function, disconnected from all the others.
    • For each service and expected benefit, ask: What is the best way to successfully accomplish this?
    • Set up separate systems and processes specifically designed to successfully accomplish that service or expected benefit.
    • When identifying the services and expected benefits and designing these systems and processes, keep in mind the principles at the heart of quality.
    An example of a debundled function: giving each employee feedback on his or her performance. Why doesn't performance appraisal adequately provide an employee with useful feedback?
    • Feedback is, by definition, something derived from one part of the system and given to an antecedent part of the system. Performance appraisal is a feed-down activity that is hierarchical by nature, not systemic. And the hierarchy is not ordinarily the best source of system-focused feedback.
    • Performance appraisal, particularly when tied to income and promotability, engenders posing and pretense: easy targets, creative accounting, and evaluation that reflects the preconceptions of the supervisor and the manipulations of the person being evaluated. All of this works against the communication of data needed for improvement.
    A better alternative is to have employees, alone or in natural work groups,
    • Identify a key work process.
    • Identify the customer(s) of that process.
    • Learn what characteristics of the product or service -- the output of the key process -- are most important to the customer.
    • Get feedback from the customer(s) on how well these characteristics are met.

    The next step is that managers must refrain from using this data to evaluate an employee and continue to encourage each employee to develop feedback loops such as this for all the key tasks. The competition in the world market has forced business to re-examine its methods of corporate leadership. We must institute managerial practices that result in improved systems, processes, and methods that produce improved products and services to customers. Performance appraisal is an unnecessary vestige of an out-of-date set of managerial premises. It is irrelevant and detrimental. We can no longer afford it.