If you’ve been a support center manager for more than ten minutes, you’ve probably been faced with the question, “How is your team doing?” Because of the role they play, support organizations are often large and/or highly visible. As a result, senior IT leadership wants to understand the return they are getting on their investment in headcount, tools, and other resources. Thus, performance management becomes a very important part of what we do as managers.
How important is performance management? Well, if you do a search on the HDI website for the term “performance management,” you’ll receive over 1,000 results, encompassing articles, blog entries, research papers, etc., all of them dealing with some aspect of performance measurement and management. Expand that search to Google and “performance management” returns 327,000,000 results! (By contrast, if you do the same search for ITIL, the results are measurably less, at around 800 and 24.2 million hits, respectively.)
Put simply, performance management defines how we measure an organization, team, or individual to make sure the business’s overall goals are being met effectively. How this is implemented depends on the level being measured, and the amount of detail increases as you move from organization to department or team to individual.
Understanding the Context
No matter what level you’re at, it’s important to understand the context surrounding the data being used to create performance reports. It can be all too easy to get tied up in the numbers and forget that there are underlying drivers generating that data. This is particularly important when establishing performance metrics for individual staff. People aren’t numbers, so any metrics that are developed to measure individual performance should only be used as a jumping-off point for real coaching or mentoring.
So, how should you go about developing a performance management plan for your business, team, or staff? Unfortunately, there’s no single answer to that question. What needs to be measured is strongly influenced by the industry being supported. For example, in a standard office environment, a resolution time of one business day might be acceptable. Take that same incident and move it into the healthcare or financial industries, and suddenly the expected resolution time is much less—hours or even minutes—depending on the severity. Every industry, team, and individual is different; keep that in mind when reviewing performance data.
The support model you use will also have an effect on how you measure performance. Are the service desk and desktop support organizations part of the same team, or are they managed separately? This is often dictated by the maturity of the organization—support teams that have been around for a while have better defined processes and may be able to leverage automation tools that younger enterprises cannot—and it will certainly have an impact on how performance is measured. For example, if the service desk and the second-level support teams are effectively the same, the knowledge base is likely to be larger, and there will probably be a stronger focus on first contact resolution. However, if the teams operate separately, then they probably each have their own definitions for first call/contact resolution, and there will almost certainly be different processes for handling calls, with the service desk measuring how quickly the incident can be categorized and moved to the appropriate support team, and the desktop support team measuring the effort required to move the incident to resolution and closure.
Make Metrics Meaningful
Much ink has been spilled on the different types of metrics used by service desk and desktop support organizations. Some of the more common metrics can be found in the list on the following page, but there is really no definitive list of metrics that must be used by every organization. Best practices are the best indicator, but the true test of any metric (performance or otherwise) is how meaningful and useful it is for management and staff.
Performance can ultimately be broken into three areas: organizational, team, and individual. Organizational performance measures how the support organization is doing at a high level. This type of performance measurement would be directed at senior leadership, who want to see the big picture, not get bogged down in the minutiae. Generally, this means averages, overall volumes, or broad statistics. For example, they may want to see the average duration of a support incident, measured from the first call to the final resolution, or perhaps overall volumes showing the total number of support calls and how many met their service level objectives. Organizational performance measures should acknowledge that an executive’s time is valuable and, as a result, the data should be easy to read and interpret quickly.
Team metrics are what operations managers use to monitor and manage the performance of their span of control. It may be similar to what is provided to senior leaders, only much more detailed. The focus here is often on understanding the ebb and flow of incoming work and being able to do the appropriate trending to provide a basis for planning. In this case, time-based reporting is valuable, because it allows the manager to leverage historical data to predict future activity. For example, there are often specific times of the year when there is an increase in the volume of work. To illustrate, in the health insurance industry there are typically two times during the year when volumes increase based on new or renewal enrollment into the health insurance plans. By doing the appropriate trending over time, managers can determine when they need limit their staff’s vacation time or even augment their teams by bringing on additional help.
Team-level metrics also provide an opportunity to measure how support processes are working, in addition to the typical time or volume measures. These types of measures open a window onto what is normal for the team. (In this case, normal is a statistical term.) Select a metric that provides insight into how well a process is performing; for example, average speed of answer or overall effort required to resolve an incident. Track this data over time and use a process control chart to determine whether your process is in control or is seeing a lot of unusual variation. Investigate and try to eliminate the variation to
improve the overall process. (The control chart is one of the most useful tools for measuring process performance!)
At least in part, team performance measurement should also be an extension of how individuals are measured. The team’s overall performance provides a good baseline for developing individual metrics. Rather than comparing one employee to another employee (something many HR departments frown upon), individual performance can be compared to team averages or the averages of higher-performing staff.
Metrics, Methods, and Management
This brings us to one of the most important jobs we have as managers: how we measure individuals on our teams. Many companies have annual evaluations where managers rank and measure staff’s accomplishments over the previous year. Unfortunately, in some cases these annual reviews are the only time employees get any feedback about their performance. When I ran an employee focus group a few years ago, I learned that my organization’s management was ignoring this critical process; I heard terms like “management by spreadsheet” or, even worse, “management by email.” Some employees had never even had a single one-on-one discussion with their managers!
As managers, our success depends upon our staff’s performance. If we relegate individual performance management to a single annual event, any blame for poor team performance falls squarely on our own shoulders. To build an effective and happy team, the method you use to measure their performance is as important as the numbers derived from those metrics. You need to have regular, personal discussions with your staff. How frequent those discussions are depends upon a number of factors, such as how many employees are assigned to a manager, but the main point is that when that yearly evaluation rolls around, it should be just one more performance discussion, and neither the employee nor the manager should be surprised.
So what should you discuss during a performance management meeting? Numbers are important, and they’re a great place to start. For example, how is the employee performing against the team average? Develop a scorecard that monitors performance in categories that are specific to your team; one organization I worked with had a dashboard that measured effort, efficiency, and quality, and provided a single score for each. The effort score measured how much time the employee was spending doing their work, efficiency measured volume of work, and quality provided customer feedback via surveys. For that organization, this balanced approach was ideal, as it accounted for the fact that some incidents take longer to resolve than others.
However, numbers shouldn’t be the only criteria, and they should never be used punitively, but rather as a means of identifying problems and developing solutions. For example, if an employee’s effort scores are lacking, a manager should dig into the underlying data, look at the various tickets, and try to understand what might have driven the lower score. Likewise, if an employee received excellent effort scores, a manager should determine whether there are any opportunities for improvement or training that could be passed along to the team as a whole.
* * * * *
Performance management at all levels is very important, and data is certainly a big part of that process, from top to bottom. Managers must make an effort to understand the context and driving forces behind their data, but they must also remember that there are people behind the data. Excellent performance, at all levels, comes down to keeping the communication channels open and maintaining a good working relationship with your staff.
Michael Hanson has been involved with many aspects of IT over the past twenty-five years, from application development to desktop support. Today he is a senior IT manager at UnitedHealth Group, Inc., where he proactively seeks ways to improve the delivery of service to more than 86,000 clients, through process improvement, knowledge and problem management, metrics and reporting, tool development, training, and business liaisons. He is a certified HDI Support Center Manager and he holds both his ITIL Foundation and Practitioner certificates. He is also a member of the HDI Desktop Support Advisory Board.