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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

The Ultimate Competence Test versus Deming


My recent post on verifying competence triggered some reactions, one of them being specifically interesting. Bob Marshall pointed that my idea of competence test isn’t congruent with Deming’s teachings, namely 95/5 rule.

Deming says that 95% of performance is attributable to the system and only remaining 5% can be attributed to individuals. Does it render the question “Would you hire a discussed person to your own dream company to work in the same role?” irrelevant?

I don’t think so. The question isn’t really a very generic one and there are a few assumptions made already before you ask it.

  • You have control over the system. Actually the question is about your own company, which means it isn’t some hypothetical organization or random system. We’re discussing the organization you’d like to have. The best possible one you can think of. Besides, you will have a chance to improve the system too.
  • The system is the same for everyone. We don’t discuss best possible performance in the world (whatever that would mean) but performance of different individuals within the same system, namely your company. This means the only differentiators which come into play are individual traits and individual performance.
  • We compare similar systems. Even though we have in mind our dream company we shouldn’t assume it would automatically be top-performing system. If we worked whole professional life in average systems what we are likely to achieve is slightly-above-average system. The change between two organizations (current workplace and our company) won’t be as dramatic. Theoretically it is of course possible, but not likely.

Besides, what we look for in the competence test isn’t aimed at finding the best performing work environment. It is aimed at finding the right people. Of course I silently assume you won’t hire wrong people to do wrong jobs. I would probably hire none of great developers I know if I started a restaurant.

If I’m not clear enough let’s go through an example. There is Mark the Coder who works for yet another average software shop. Mark the Coder stands out, at least at his current organization. Now let’s hire Mark in another average software shop. Would he still stand out? Pretty likely.

OK, so now hire Mark in low-performing company. His personal traits which made him shine in the original organization will play even more important role as the background is worse. Would he still stand out? Yes. Would he perform better than in original situation? Rather not. Actually relatively he should perform worse, but he would still be considered as great performer in his new environment.

What happens if we hire Mark in high performing organization then? He will likely perform better, as the system itself performs better, but it isn’t so obvious whether he will still be considered as one of top performers. Why? First, high-performing organization is a competitive background for personal traits and second, high-performing organizations tend to draw many top performers making it more difficult to stand out. Either way Mark the Coder should cope with the new situation, even if he loses the guru plaque.

I know that what we really consider asking the question “Would you hire that person in your own organization?” is the last scenario, which is also the one with least obvious outcome. However if someone has a chance to become a top performer in the new high-performing system it is likely the one who was already among top performers in the old organization, thus Mark the Coder serves as a good candidate here.

So no, I don’t find the ultimate competence test conflicting with Deming’s teaching. Do you?

in: team management

2 comments… add one

  • Erik Eckhardt August 9, 2010, 10:52 am

    >>This means the only differentiators which come into play are individual traits and individual performance.

    This is true up to a certain point, but keep in mind that the individual traits affecting a person’s performance aren’t just his own but also the traits of those around him. A person who might be a superstar in a different environment could have a boss who ruins it for him, turning his rating into “mixed bag.”

    Of course you’re aware of this dynamic as you used the word “toxic” which implies exactly what the danger is: toxic people poison others around them.

    There’s a story of two competing musicians who each played a solo (with different instruments). The judges could not decide who was better, so they had the musicians play together. Their duet clearly highlighted the beauty and skill of one musician, and so the judges awarded the prize to the other musician—it was the addition of his instrument that made the other’s music so beautiful.

    If an employee is playing a duet with someone and not looking so good, look at both players before deciding what the actual problem is…

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 9, 2010, 12:07 pm


    You point an important thing – I omitted, partially on purpose, dynamics of the team. Actually adding it to equation would make any comparison impossible as you can’t predict every conflict between any two people in the team.

    And yes, team dynamics is a part of the system so this may be treated as an argument against my point above. However ruling out toxic people, and as you point we rule them out using proposed criteria, should reduce conflict volume to a healthy level. In this case its impact on overall performance will be limited.

    Anyway, thanks for pointing this one out.

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