Rummler and Brache: Improving Performance

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Improving Performance (the book).

Managing the white spaceFollowing the recent death of co-author Geary Rummler, I’m reading Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart.   This post is the first in a series based on that book and on the implications of that white space.

I’ve read a lot of what Rummler wrote; I took the Performance Analysis Workshop he and Tom Gilbert designed; I was lucky enough to be invited to a Rummler-led session for PAW grads (where I saw among other things a professional-development system for officers on an ocean freighter).   I often work within a single department of a client organization and often with people on the front line, where the organization meets its external customers.  Going through this book, as they say in Congress, “revises and extends” my viewpoint.

Geary Rummler and Alan Brache argue that true performance improvement demands a systematic view of the entire organization.

The traditional view of an organization is the organization chart.   Take a look at one for an organization you know well.   You see the CEO or other chief honcho; the main levels of the chain of command; the prime departments.

What’s missing?   Customers.   Products and services.   The processes that produce the products and services.

In small or new organizations, this vertical view [the traditional organization chart] is not a major problem because everybody in the organization knows each other and needs to understand other functions.   However, as time passes and the organization becomes more complex, as the environment changes, and as technology becomes more complicated, this view of the organization becomes a liability.

Traditional organizations lead to silos built around departments.   Silos make it nearly impossible to resolve interdepartmental issues at low or middle levels.   Functions get better at meeting their own goals ( “manufacturing hit its numbers” ) but that doesn’t necessarily help the organization as a whole.

As the authors emphasize many times, the greatest opportunities for performance improvement often lie in the functional interfaces — those points at which the baton (for example, production specs) is being passed from one department to another.

An organization chart shows who and with whom, but not the what, why, and how of the business.   In real life, bosses are often managing the organization chart, not the business. Rummler and Brache see a different ideal:

A primary contribution of a manager at the second level or above is to manage interfaces.   The boxes already have managers; the Senior manager adds value by managing the white space between the boxes.

Organizations are adaptive systems.   Chapter 2 lists 10 features of the organization as system.   For example, it converts various inputs into products and services, guided by internal criteria and feedback as well as by feedback from the market.

Any organization that survives, they argue, has adapted — but the health of the organization depends on how well it’s adapted.   “18 months after Peters and Waterman published their list of excellent companies, one third of them had dropped off the list.”

What messages do I draw from this?

  • If an organization’s an adaptive system, so are its components.
  • What matters is first what gets accomplished, and then how that happens.
  • In an organization, learning (in the broad sense) and training (in the focused sense) need to connect both to individual and organizational needs.

More than anything, the value is emphasized in an interview ASTD had with Rummler last year:

(ASTD) What are some of the things that currently frustrate you about the learning and development profession?

The same thing that frustrated me 45 years ago–the fact that i’s a solution in search of a problem. People have developed all this wonderful stuff around learning and development, and it’s become a thing in and of itself rather than something that exists to help people be more effective in their jobs.

Bad management makes it worse because managers read the magazines, see the fads, and call the training people to say, “I want us to try this.”  There’s no corrective force in that relationship. In fact, training has become in many ways the enabler for bad management because now the default solution is to fix the people. You’ve got vendors inventing things, business publications promoting them, managers reading them and thinking they should be doing this, and the training department going along with it all too eagerly. It is a whole business.

“Fix the people” isn’t all that far removed from “teach them what they need to know.”

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6 thoughts on “Rummler and Brache: Improving Performance

  1. My pleasure, Harold. I first came across names like Rummler, Gilbert, Brethower, and Harless in 1977. Eventually I had the chance to learn from each of them personally. Two are gone now, and one’s retired, but the clear vision (and good sense) is a gift they still offer.

  2. Dave,
    that’s a business book review well done. It sure pays to hear about a book from someone who has been working with the underlying concepts and can evaluate it from a solid standpoint.
    I’ve recently been working with orgcharts a lot in the course of organizational effectiveness analyses – I think I’ll get myself that book and try to build some bridges from the solid and dotted lines towards the “white space”.

  3. Florian, I’m glad you found the post helpful. I’m going to follow this up in greater detail — for example, I think I’ll try working up a chart of my own as an exercise in the horizontal (cross-silo) thinking that Rummler and Brache advocate.

  4. Thank you Dave. I too have found it helpful. Also, I too had the opportunity to work with Joe Harless and Dale Brethower. My advisor in my graduate studies at Western Michigan University was Bob Brinkerhoff, who was an important early mentor. And I went thru a Rummler-Brache “Introduction to Process Management” workshop in the early ’90s. Currently I’m trying to help my boss steer a business process documentation project in the right direction, so I’m referring back to the workshop materials and found your blog during a web search.

  5. Chris, you said the magic words with “Joe Harless,” one of the smartest and most gracious people I’ve ever met.

    I’ve often said that the “problem” with having learned from people like Harless, Brethower, and Rummler is that you’re ruined for life. You can’t go back to things as they were.

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