It’s not easy to get good performance culture.

Perhaps at first blush you might think that it would be easy.  After all performance planning, like many other quality aspects, is about creating a better product for your customers in a better way.  It’s about having more control, making deliberate choices, and understanding and controlling your risks.

How could anyone in their right mind possibly disagree with value of these things?  It should be as easy as selling a no-calorie fat-free dessert that tastes as good as the best ice-cream you’ve ever had.  Why isn’t it?

Well the fact is that getting good performance culture is a lot more like getting people to buckle their seat belts than it is like getting them to eat a guilt-free dessert.

With seat belt buckling, especially in the early days, people use to say ridiculous things like “I’m strong I can brace myself,” or “It’s better to be thrown clear in an accident,” and those are just part of the battle.  Other things they would say are “The seat belt just isn’t comfortable,” or “I won’t let the government dictate what I do in my own car.”

All of these reactions are perhaps typical of what you face when trying to make a cultural change.  People can deny that there is a problem at all, so you work on awareness; they can be misinformed as to how it should be solved, so you have to help inform them; they may resist for reasons that are unwise (is it really prudent to trade a little comfort for that much safety?) so you help them understand the tradeoffs they are making; or they may rebel entirely against any new process just because they don’t want any process as they are all “responsible adults” who don't need help from the likes of you.

That last one is perhaps the one that personally I find the hardest to deal with.  The fact is that even the best engineers make mistakes, often because they react inappropriately to time or cost pressure and then make decisions which ultimately do not serve them or their customers.  It’s only human nature.

Don’t believe me?  It isn’t hard to see in action.  Just go stand at an intersection for a few minutes and watch what happens when the light turns yellow.  Now remember, every one of these drivers you see has been educated and tested, and the law is very clear. In Washington State it says for instance, “You must stop if it is safe to do so.”  That’s clear enough right?  And yet drivers’ actions are not consistent with this; it doesn’t take long to observe that what people are doing is much closer to “You may proceed unless it would be unsafe to do so” than to the law.  In fact the situation in my area is now so bad that is unsafe to proceed when the light first turns green because someone may be testing their luck going the other way.  Yet the whole purpose of having a yellow light was to avoid that very situation.

Why does this happen?  Well my personal theory is that here, like in many other cases, a person is making a spot decision and is choosing the expedient rather than considering what the net result of their actions will be.  That the habit of pushing the yellow has in fact eroded the safe duration of the green never occurs to someone that is in a hurry.  That the overall bandwidth of the city streets is lowered by their actions and that therefore on average they get places more slowly doesn’t occur to them.  They just need to get through that yellow light.  Now.

And remember this is not one or two awful human beings doing all this that we’re talking about here.  This is prevalent behavior; it’s people we know and respect; it’s smart, educated people.   In other words it’s “Responsible Adults.”

Now suppose you needed to change the behavior in your city in the direction of having fewer people push their luck on the yellow lights.  Sobering thought isn’t it?  Yet changing the culture of a large development team is a very similar problem and you would use very similar techniques to accomplish the result.

As engineers we have rules and procedures in place to help us to avoid what is merely expedient and thereby act with the discipline that we aspire to.  If we choose our procedures wisely this helps us to be more productive, not less.  After all “productivity” comes from “producing” and production doesn’t count if all you made was a big mess.

Even so, your organization might need a reminder once in a while.   You can make a difference but it won’t happen overnight and it could be a little bit "bumpy" along the way.  But hang in there, I do :)