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The U-E-A Chain, implemented well, raises performance dramatically.

Everyone wants a culture of high-performance. Companies, sports teams, even charities and government organisations search for the holy grail of high-performance. A few companies actually reach it.

So if you want a culture of high-performance, where could you and your executives start? The top action – and the easiest in the long term – is to understand what your customers want and get aligned as an executive team on those customer needs. When the top team is fully aligned the cascade of strategic and operational priorities is fast and clear.

There are many examples of not being aligned in the top team. I have a client in manufacturing, where the Production Director gets a bonus for finishing products on time. But the delivery to the customer then takes weeks or months. That’s like a chef cooking a great food only for the waiter to mess about and serve it cold. The moment has gone; the food is horrible.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly satisfying to see an executive team and leadership group aligning around a systematic, consistent method of measuring and managing performance. So how do they do it?

First, a quick detour: don’t start in the wrong place. Over-analysing is the biggest mistake I see top teams making. Examples include starting with a complex, expensive data analytics project; or selecting a detailed “dashboard of metrics”; or by launching a “strategic communication project” – whatever that means.

Start with U-E-A
The best companies start with the U-E-A Chain: Understanding – Evaluation – Action.
The reasons are:

#1. Understanding is the first step, not evaluating performance.
Speak to your customers. What do they really value? Is it on time delivery, tasty food or aesthetically-pleasing cold food or something else? Understand what each customer segment needs.

#2 Capture that understanding in one key indicator.
For example, set a clear target for on time delivery. All other indicators should flow from this main indicator.

#3 Make sure all managers understand both the indicator and its purpose.
Some years ago, when British Rail couldn’t get trains to arrive on time, they came up with the sneaky idea of saying a train was on time if it arrived within 10 minutes of the planned arrival time. In practice, their managers created a “70-minute hour”. The indicator stopped managers focusing of delivering what their customers need: punctual trains. Also, there’s nothing to stop the target being pushed back to more than 10 minutes.

#4. Performance improvement questions are always better than performance justification questions.
If we start with understanding, managers ask “How can I do it better?”. This is a performance improvement question. But if we ignore the importance of understanding and start instead with evaluation, managers ask a different question: “Am I right / am I good enough?” The behaviours that follow this question tend to be defending and justifying current performance levels.

#5. Understanding – Evaluation – Action creates a positive culture of performance.
It also avoids the negative Big Brother culture of monitoring and controlling.

#6. It reduces the temptation to manipulate: managers massaging figures to look better in the short term.
It may not eradicate manipulated figures – some people can and will always do that. But it is more likely to keep managers and employees honest.

#7. It motivates everyone to work towards the truth.
The truth here is an honest attempt to understand and take action on the issues that are most important for your customers.

#8. It is the only way to create a performance culture that is positive, systematic, and sustainable.
Cut out the first step of understanding and we immediately open the door to mis-measurement and manipulation of key indicators.

Above all, executives and managers must put their egos to one side. A positive performance culture starts with a robust, open dialogue with customers about what they need and how to measure that with a sensible key indicator.

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