Training, as a remedy for poor personal performance, is often the first choice for leadership.  There are several contributing factors that can lead to this decision, especially in industries such as aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF).  Performance challenges that occur during ARFF operations can lead to accidents, injury, or death.  In these situations, organizational leadership often face pressure, both internal and external to the organization, to develop a quick solution to prevent a reoccurrence.  The pressure to do something, coupled with the historical use of training to address performance problems, results in selecting training as the intervention tool.  Unfortunately, this strategy does not always produce the desired results or lead to long-term performance improvement.  The Association for Training Development has reported that organizations who use traditional training as a performance intervention realize a 5-10% net effectiveness in changing performance, a small return on investment for the organization that often fails to correct to root cause of performance problems (Ross, 2017).  This article discusses strategies that can be employed by ARFF leadership to evaluate the factors that affect performance and develop real, sustainable performance improvement solutions.

Before any performance intervention, including training, can be effectively employed an understanding of the factors that affect employee performance should be understood.  According to Wilmoth, Prigmore, and Bray (2002) the human performance model, developed by Wile in 1996, provides a framework for understanding factors that are internal and external to the individual that impact performance.  Internally to the individual, performance is affected by the employees’ skill and knowledge and inherent ability to perform the job.  In other words, how prepared (mentally, physically, and trained) is the individual to complete the job. While there are two factors internal to the performer that have been identified that affect performance, externally there were five factors identified external to employee that impact performance.  The first external factor, organizations systems, encompasses goals, policies, workload, job design, and lines of authority.  The second factor, workplace incentives, is more than compensation and includes performance feedback and providing reinforcement for positive behavior. Cognitive support is the next factor affecting performance, relating to the availability and use of job aids, technical data, and documentation.  The fourth factor, tools, may seem self-explanatory; however, in the emerging world of technology involves software and computers.  The final external factor affecting performance is the physical environment where the employee operates to include areas such as temperature, danger, light, noise, and the physical layout of the equipment needed to successfully perform the job.

When examining the various factors that combine to influence employee performance and behavior it becomes clear that there is much more involved in performance improvement than training.  Determining the best approach for performance improvement is a task that can be accomplished by leveraging a human performance strategy.  Human performance improvement is a results-based approach to improvement efforts where the focus is placed on identifying the need for performance improvement after conducting causal analysis (The Engagement Effect, 2017).  While this approach may sound confusing, it is not and involves systemically conducting a five-step process.

First, a performance analysis must be conducted to identify if a  performance gap is present.  This step requires that the organization first consider the desired level of performance for an activity or job and compare that level to the actual job performance.  Where there is a significant difference in expectations and performance an opportunity for improvement exist. Simply identifying the gap is not sufficient to choose the improvement strategy.  Identifying the appropriate strategy requires the organization to conduct a causal analysis to determine which of the factors discussed earlier are negatively impacting performance.

In analyzing factors internal to the employee consider first the employee’s knowledge and skills for the task.  Consider if the employee has the relevant information, facts, ideas, and skills as they relate to cognitive, social, and physical task of the job.  Additional analysis includes determining if the employee has the necessary information processing skillset to be successful.

The analysis of factors external to the employee begins by considering if the incentives are available to the employee, understood by the employee, advertised to the employee, and are positively linked to superior performance.   Analyzing job performance includes assessing if expectations are communicated, mutually agreed upon, understood by employees, and if feedback is provided, timely, and used to drive performance.  Additionally, the employee’s self-concept should be evaluated to determine if they are internally or externally motivated, feel valued and competent in completing their job, and bring value to the organization.  Tools and processes should be examined to determine availability, efficiency, effectiveness, and the presence of leadership support (Steege, Marra, & Jones, 2012)

Upon completion of the causal analysis, the organization can select an appropriate human performance improvement intervention.  Depending on the analysis interventions can range from learning, performance support, job redesign, personal development, human resource development, communication strategies, and leadership initiatives.  Adopting this approach allows the intervention to be specifically aligned to the performance gap analysis and based on the causal analysis.

The final step in the human performance improvement strategy is the development of an evaluation plan.  This final step is critical in gaining leadership support for the intervention and achieves several goals. The evaluation plan serves to justify the selected intervention and determine the intervention effectiveness.  Finally, an evaluation plan allows the intervention to be captured as a best practice, make adjustments as necessary, and to determine is the intervention in sustainable.

According to Cullen-Lester (2016), organizations are in an ever-changing state in an effort to improve employee performance and organizational effectiveness.  Embarking on an improvement effort requires a significant investment of organizational resources and, in the case of ARRF organizations, are often needed to address safety critical issues.  Given that approximately 70% of organizational change efforts are unsuccessful, choosing the correct intervention is a vitally important organizational decision that should be done in s systemic, deliberate manner (Alsher, 2018; Halm, 2014).

About the Author:  John “Keith” Wilson is an Assistant Professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University -Worldwide, where he serves as the Program Chair for the Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics degree.  He served 25 years in the United States Air Force, retiring as a Chief Master Sergeant.  His research interest include: leadership, confined space operations, training, aviation, aircraft maintenance, employee training and development, organizational performance, human factors, and safety.






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