Starting Performance Improvement with Analysis Might Not Deliver Success

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A number of years ago, Joe Harless in his brilliant An Ounce of Analysis Is Worth a Pound of Cure set the stage for encouraging serious people not pick a solution, or cure, before knowing the problem.  I take his position further and suggest that “an ounce of assessment is worth a pound of analysis or a ton of cure.”

Nevertheless, people still address presenting symptoms with a “fix” before documenting the existence of a problem. In doing so, they assume the validity, importance, value, and worth of the problem. Research shows that we too often do what our first instincts tell us to do, and we fail to move on to really digging deep into our problem-solving abilities.

The conventional advice is to begin performance improvement is to “analyze the problem.”

This is both ineffective and inefficient. 

Some of the tools in our current arsenal of approaches, such as problem analysis, training needs assessment, and ADDIE, tend to encourage us to assume that the problem at hand is what we should resolve—rather than a possible symptom of an underlying or larger problem. If we start there, we can analyze the presenting symptoms, but we very well might not get useful performance.

And judging from the number of organizations failing in recent decades, a lot of time and money has been wasted on fixing the wrong problem or doing what we already do but more efficiently.  

It is time for us to rethink how we go about planning and conducting needs assessments, so we don’t continue to create future failures.

A better way

You have great chance for success if first—before doing anything, including problem analysis or a training needs assessment—you know where you and your organization are headed and you are able to justify your goals with performance data. Next, you must determine measurable objectives for knowing when you have arrived. Validating where you are headed and justifying why is the major role of a valid needs assessment and a major tool for avoiding failure.


We must resist relying on our first impressions and past experiences to ensure that what we use, do, produce, and deliver will add value to all stakeholders. The field is changing as it moves from a focus on individual and workplace learning to also align that with contributions within the organization, as well as value added to all our external clients and societal partners. 

My recent ASTD book, Needs Assessment for Organizational Success, co-authored with Ingrid Guerra-Lopez, offers insight for creating success and avoiding failure even further.  Of course, the “heavy lifting” in any organization is in the analysis and cure. But before expending our time and talent, let’s do the assessment first to assure that where we are headed is where we should be going. If you start with assessment instead of analysis of individual performance, you might, perhaps, have a much higher probability of success.

We can determine if the organization is heading in the correct and most practical direction by defining a “need” as a gap in results or resources and by assessing those gaps in results at three aligned levels: 

  1. societal/external clients (mega level of results),
  2. organizational (micro level of results)
  3. individual and small groups (micro level of results).

The linked levels of results and resources are defined by the organizational elements:

  • what an organization uses (inputs),
  • what an organization does (processes),
  • what an organization produces internally (micro results)),
  • what an organization can deliver outside of itself (macro results)
  • the measurable value an organization adds to external clients and our shared society (mega results).

Mega level of results is based on adding value to all stakeholders, and to assure that everything the organization uses, does, produces, and delivers adds value to all stakeholders. It is defined by an “ideal vision”—the kind of world we want to, using our organization as a vehicle, create for tomorrow’s child. 

Using this orientation we can define those measurable variables that will enable our organizations to be successful. With the evidence and criteria that needs assessment provides, it might turn out that our organizations are not going in the right direction. And valid information from a proper needs assessment can be provided to decision-makers in order to change direction.

The justification for determining whether the problem to be assessed and then cure is based on prioritizing the needs at each of the three levels on the basis of the costs to meet those needs (close the gaps in results) and compared to the costs of ignoring them. 

By conducting an “ounce of assessment” before delivering the “pound of analysis and a ton of cure,” we can better ensure that all we do in analysis and cure/development will be successful.

About the Author

Roger Kaufman, PhD, is professor emeritus at Florida State University and a distinguished research professor at the Sonora Institute of Technology (Mexico). Kaufman is the recipient of a U.S. Homeland Security/U.S. Coast Guard medal for Meritorious Public Service. He has also been awarded the International Society for Performance Improvement’s (ISPI) top two honors: Honorary Member for Life and the Thomas F. Gilbert Award. He is a past ISPI president and a founding member, and is the recipient of ASTD’s Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance recognition. Kaufman has published 41 books and more than 285 articles, including Needs Assessment for Organizational Success (ATD Press).

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