L&D Podcast - Steve Villachica
Training & Learning

How to Put Your Performance Improvement Plan to Work: An Expert Interview With Steve Villachica

In this series, we're exploring the critical shift L&D experts are making to drive greater individual and organizational performance.

This is why it was a great pleasure when Guy Wallace and I spoke with Steve Villachica, Associate Professor of Organizational Performance & Workplace Learning at Boise State University, whose research interests focus on identifying and leveraging exemplary performance throughout organizations.

Prior to joining Boise State, Steve collaborated with colleagues and clients at DLS Group to create large-scale performance support systems, instructor-led training, and a host of award-winning performance improvement solutions for pharmaceutical companies, law enforcement agencies, the Intelligence Community, and many others. 

This week we discuss how Steve made his pivot to performance-orientation, the types of analysis required to initiate performance improvement, and three elements that make up his performance consulting approach.

Meeting strategic business objectives with learning programs

Steve’s pivot to performance began in 1987 when he started working with Deborah Stone of DLS group where she introduced Steve to performance improvement.

“The conversation unfolded like this: she mentioned that if you think about what organizations expect, they want people to perform in ways that help meet their strategic business objectives,” says Steve.

His conversation with Deborah also highlighted other possible aspects in the workplace environment that get in people’s way. “They may not have the information they need,” he says. “They may not have the instruments they need. There may be other consequences that keep them from performing to standards.”

If you think about what organizations expect, they want people to perform in ways that help meet their strategic business objectives.

Read on to hear about the two vital parts of Steve’s approach to performance analysis.

The optimal analysis for initiating performance improvement

For early analysis and discovery, Steve uses needs analysis to initiate the process of performance improvement which is largely about two components.

1. Choreography – a dance with potential

The choreography starts with a request for training or help and extends throughout a project. Steve explains that it is about moving beyond the organizational stakeholders' understanding of a situation and what they think they need.

“In other words,” Steve says, “they come to us with good intention, but with an often ill-informed request for training. We need to turn the conversation. We need to obtain their permission to use what Dawn Snyder called our performance lens.”

2. A shared mental model

Steve says that the second part of the analysis is using systematic approaches to build a shared mental model with L&D teams and organizational stakeholders. This enables them to engineer workspace ecosystems that meet strategic organizational objectives.

Steve went on to describe the three elements he utilizes in his approach when consulting on performance improvement.

Related: Dawn Snyder, Driving Faster Learning with the Right Performance Approach

3-steps to rolling out a successful performance improvement plan

Whether Steve is teaching courses or consulting, his performance consulting approach typically consists of three elements: gathering organizational intelligence, framing a problem or an opportunity, and specifying feasible solutions to the problem.

1. Gather organizational intelligence to build a foundation

Steve explains that he gathers organizational intelligence to explore what's keeping L&D teams up at night.

One technique he uses is based on the advice of Tim Gillum and Kery Mortenson which queries the differences between what an organization says about itself and what it actually does. “This helps you navigate towards opportunities while avoiding hazards,” says Steve. “And so, organizational intelligence helps us find ways to be useful rather than being a one-trick pony that can only offer training.”

Next Steve qualifies requests for assistance. At the beginning of the conversation, Steve gently steers the L&D leaders from the requested solutions towards the performance issues that keeps them up at night.

“The conversation is moving from that initial, ‘I need some training’ idea to exploring the performance that would help them sleep.” That part of the conversation starts coming to a close when Steve can state the desired performance both parties agree they need and link it to what's important to the organization.

Organizational intelligence helps us find ways to be useful rather than being a one-trick pony that can only offer training.

2. Frame the gap between desired and actual performance

Next, Steve frames the problem or opportunity in the form of a gap between actual and desired performance.

“We need to do a deep dive to make sure what we've discovered are the right things to move forward,” Steve says. This part of the performance analysis is called a needs assessment which frames the problem or opportunity.

Steve emphasizes that once framed, it’s important to determine whether the gap is worth closing. His preferred method is to align the performance gap with what's important to the organization. The gap is worth closing if it aligns with the organization's mission, strategic business objectives, or what keeps L&D leaders up at night.

If the gap is worth closing, Steve moves to an analysis of the gap’s causes that exist in the workplace environment. “If you are looking at the workplace environment, those co-occurring causes can include a lack of adequate information,” he says. People might not have access to standards or other guidance, adequate instruments, or feedback. 

To finish framing the problem or opportunity, Steve looks at how the environmental causes co-occur with individual ones. “In addition to a lack of skill and knowledge,” he says, “you may have a lack of motives where the things that get people out of bed in the morning don't align with the incentives the organization offers.”

Get started with conducting a training needs analysis with our free template here.

Training Needs Analysis Template

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3. Specify feasible solutions to the problem’s causes

Finally, Steve specifies feasible solutions to the causes of the problem and describes how they'll work together to close the gap.

There are families of solutions that performance consultants can specify that will address the causes of a performance gap. For example, you can recommend and help an organization create missing standards or provide guidance such as job aids or signage, or provide missing feedback.

“This comes back to the choreography,” Steve says, “because typically performance consultants first start matching solutions to causes. Then we review those solutions with L&D teams and other organizational stakeholders to identify what's feasible and what will best serve the organization. And we have to do that with them, not to them.”

At this point, Steve starts to think about the implementation of the solutions. In an academic article he co-authored with Anthony Marker, they noted that across all the performance improvement models there are consistently two places they termed orphans.

“One orphan is implementation,” Steve says. “Implementation is something that should be started on day one, if not before of any given project.” The other Steve calls change choreography, which should be addressed before they call the initial performance analysis or needs assessment done. “These are the discovery outputs that are then ready for further design development, implementation, and change,” he says.

Thank you Steve Villachica for sharing his expertise in identifying and leveraging exemplary performance throughout organizations! Keen to hear more about actionable and insightful L&D stories? Explore my session with Filip Lam on driving better learning outcomes with smart tech and automation.

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