Management Challenge #9: When You Have an Employee Who Needs to Increase Productivity

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” (Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco, September 2014).

Here’s what happens: Assuming “metrics” are in place, the manager shows the employee the “numbers” and says, “Your number is short of your goal.” At this point, most employees are thinking, “I would like to increase the numbers, too. What I need to know is how to increase the numbers.”

Metrics are great. But the metrics are only valuable if you use them every step of the way to develop good course-correcting feedback for your employees. You need to be able to coach your employees on how to get faster.

First, take a step back: Faster is not always better. Some people work slowly because they are trying to be very, very careful. They are concentrating so hard on getting everything just right that they move deliberately at every point. That commitment to quality should be encouraged. The challenge is coaching the very careful employee to maintain quality, but also work on speed.

The default solution for most managers in this case is to say: “Your quality scores are great! But your productivity is too low.” The quality-focused employee usually is thinking, “Gosh, I’m going as fast as I can go without risking mistakes.”

You need to acknowledge that it’s a delicate balance—productivity and quality. The good news is that, usually, an employee who is so committed to quality is likely to be an engaged learner and open to performance coaching. Tune in to this “quality-focused” employee’s careful, deliberate style. Take a deliberate approach to helping her speed up. In your regular one-on-ones, focus on the goal of starting to speed up, slowly but surely.

Spend some time with this employee and together conduct a time/motion study (described below) of each task in question. Take it one task at a time, and for each:

  • Watch the employee do the task multiple times. Break each task into its component steps; and break each step into a series of concrete actions. Then time the whole thing: Time each concrete action making up each step making up the whole task.
  • Figure out: How long should the task take? Step by step, concrete action by concrete action. Create a time budget for each task, for each step, for each concrete action.
  • Do a micro-gap analysis: Identify the micro-gaps between the time budget and the employee’s actual time step by step, concrete action by concrete action. In these micro-gaps lie the potential opportunities to speed up.
  • Choose one concrete action at a time to “accelerate” and take it slowly. What if the employee could speed up just one concrete action per week? Close the micro-gaps one by one. By going one concrete action at time, you will minimize the chances of increased mistakes in the effort to “speed up.”

Once you’ve increased the speed of one task, move on to the next task. Every step of the way, remember to monitor the quality of this person’s work to make sure it doesn’t dip and acknowledge the continued high quality as her pace speeds up, slowly but surely.

Quality-focused employees often are very gratifying to coach on speeding up because they are earnest, detail-oriented, and know how to work on “getting better” at something. You just have to get them focusing their attention on the details of “going faster.”

Beware though: Sometimes what looks like a great attention to detail is actually some kind of obsessive/compulsive behavior. The triple-checking does not add anything other than satisfying the employee. If you have an employee who is working too slowly because he is repeatedly doing unnecessary tasks or repeatedly building unnecessary steps into tasks, then resolving that problem definitely is your business.

One of the beauties of doing a time/motion study of every task, responsibility, and project is that it gives you an opportunity to drill down and see not just what your employees are doing, but exactly how they are doing it. You learn so much as a manager about the employee. You learn so much about the work. And in nearly every case, you will probably find at least a few surprises in the details. Just as some employees work slowly because they are so careful to get everything right, there are plenty of employees who work slowly because the way they are doing it is all wrong, a little bit wrong, or somewhere in between.

When it comes to helping an employee “speed up,” here are the surprises you should be looking for in your time/motion studies:

  • Is the employee doing it wrong? Look at the employee’s every action in the process and check it against the very best practices, action by action. Do a micro-gap analysis. Start coaching to fill the gaps.
  • Is the employee doing unnecessary tasks? Start coaching to stop doing those unnecessary tasks regardless of what itch they might scratch.
  • Is the employee building in unnecessary steps in any tasks? (I call these detours.) If so, streamline the process.
  • Is the employee encountering any recurring obstacles that have not been taken into account? If so can the obstacles be removed? Or can a ready-made solution be provided to deal with the obstacles when they occur?

When you take the time to study exactly how an employee is doing a task, responsibility, or project, there are only three ways it can go:

  1. You might be surprised to find that carefully following the best practices step by step takes longer than you thought.
  2. You might find the employee’s more time-consuming approach is so good you deem her approach to be the new set of best practices, even if they do take a little bit longer than the old ones.
  3. You probably will identify some very specific opportunities to help this employee improve—and probably speed up. In your regular one-on-ones, start working on those specific goals, one task at a time: Step by step, concrete action by concrete action.

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” released by Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco (September 2014; $23.95). For more information, visit

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); and “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at

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