A Formula For Successful Task Execution

by James Elliott – December 12, 2021

One afternoon at work I was walking down the hall and stopped by the Production Manager’s office to see how his day was going. After I knocked on his open door, Fred look up from his desk. He had a tired, weary look on his face. I could tell he was frustrated. On his desk was a tall stack of the all too familiar red folders that HR uses to circulate corrective counseling forms.

After a moment, Fred broke the silence. “James, I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand why these guys can’t do their jobs right. We shouldn’t have to tell grown men over and over again how to do their jobs.” Fred was right. There was a problem. Production employees were constantly making mistakes that affected product quality, the production schedule, and ultimately the bottom line. Even more critical were the instances where employees violated safety rules that are meant to protect them from harm, which resulted in loss time injuries and lengthy incident investigations.

For too many organizations this example, or a variation thereof, is all too familiar. Often this condition is not the fault of the employees. It is a culture created by the organization’s management where expectations and standards not formally documented and communicated and a training program does not exist or unstructured “on the job” training is the primary delivery method.

Fortunately the solution for poor task execution is simple. Over the years of serving as a leader in various industries and organizations from the US Coast Guard to pharmaceutical and from food to aerospace, I have developed a simple formula that easily fits on the back of a paper napkin. I call it the Task Execution Equation.

Standards  x  Training = Task Execution

If your organization has good, well written standards and a robust training program, then the task execution should be great.

1 x 1 = 1

If you do not have document standards or they are poorly written, it does not matter how much you train, your task execution is going to suffer.

0 x 1 = 0

Similarly even if you have the best written standards in the world, but do no training on them, your task execution is likely to be poor.

1 x 0 = 0

Finally, if standards and training do not exist in your organization, you are either out of business or will be soon.

0  x 0 = 0

The equation is simple. I keep it on the white board in my office and refer to it often when I or someone else is asking why a job or task did not go as planned.

When a task does not go as planned, many in people in management want to hammer the person responsible. They unfortunately jump to the conclusion that the reason the task did not go well was due to behavioral or willingness issues on behalf of the employee or that the employee is not competent. In most circumstances the employee receives some sort of corrective counseling as is with Fred’s situation above.

As servant leaders, we recognize that our job is to serve and take care of those we lead. We need to set them up for success. We need to ensure that they have the knowledge, skills, and tools to successfully achieve the tasks given to them. I use the Task Execution Equation often when analyzing why a task or assignment did not go as planned and to identify potential root causes and corrective actions. 

As a leader it is my duty to look inwardly and ask myself two important questions. The first is: “Do we have a documented standard for the work that was supposed to be executed?” Or in the case of one off events where there is no specific documented work instruction, “Did I thoroughly communicate my expectations?”  If the answer is yes, then I evaluate the quality of the standard. Is it written in plain language? Does it provide the appropriate instruction for the given task? Is the standard accessible to the employee who needs to follow it? If the answer to one or more these questions is no, then the standard or the way in which I communicated the standard may need to be revised.

The second question I ask is “Have the employees been thoroughly trained on the standard? Do they know what is expected of them?” Just as with the evaluation of the standard, I examine the quality of the training. Was it formal or informal? Is the training itself standardized? Was the training provided by a competent person? Is there a knowledge component as well as a practical demonstration of skill? Is the transfer of knowledge and skill confirmed with testing? Is the training documented? Are all pertinent knowledge and skills from the standard addressed? Is periodic refresher training required? If so, is refresher training being done? After asking these questions, if it is determined that the training of the employee was poor, then the training program may need to be revised.

If after looking inwardly and asking these types of questions it is determined that the standard and the training are solid and meet the necessarily requirements, then, and only then, would I look to consider the poor task execution a result of the employee’s behavior.

Returning to Fred’s dilemma. It turns out that for years the standards his employees were supposed to follow were poorly written and the employees did not have direct access to them. In addition, the majority of the training was verbally passed on as “village knowledge” from one employee to the next and most of it was not documented.

Since this interaction with Fred that fateful afternoon, I have shared with him the Task Execution Equation and the associated philosophy. Fred has put the formula to good use. His department is improving.  The number of safety incidents and product quality issues have significantly dropped, productivity in the plant have improved, and the red corrective counseling folders on Fred’s desk have essentially vanished. In addition, the general moral of the employees in Fred’s department has never been better.