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A slow employee can slow down the whole team

Columnist Dave Conrad says the sweet spot is finding the right speed and attention to quality.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
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Dear Dave,

What can I do with a slow employee? This person eventually gets things done, but takes forever, and his coworkers become angry, because they often have to wait for this person to get things done so they can do their work. The work this person does is good, it just takes forever to get done.

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— P

Dear P,

Now, slow down a minute. Sorry, I had to throw that one in. It’s easy to see how a problem like this has impact on other people, and your management ability and workflow, but there are things you can do. And you can start seeing improvements right away.

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A systemic problem

You didn’t tell me if this person is in a professional or other type of role. But maybe it doesn’t matter, because slow is slow no matter what the position is and what the work requirements are. Some jobs require more time to complete, and workers need to slow down a bit to take care of the minute details.

Still, some folks are just more deliberate, and take more time to do things, because they want to be thorough, careful and not make mistakes. For my money, give me thorough and less errors over speed plus errors any day. But – and Dave is on his “soap box” here – I think our society has come to worship speed/efficiency over effectiveness.

Being that your other employees rely on this person to move things along so they can get their work done, you are wrestling with cost and productivity problems. Additionally, customers want and deserve product speed and perfection. However, if you ask any customer if they would accept quickly delivered products that have defects, I think you know what the answer would be.

Work styles vary

First, employees may not know they are slow, and they may even think they are right on pace because everything turns out so well. They may be taking great pride in a slower pace because they equate time spent to quality. For example, perfectionists always appear to be stuck on some piece of work because they absolutely must take more time to cover every detail. Their quest for perfection drives coworkers nuts – but I doubt the perfectionists will change.

Next you have the folks who could put together an entire product, project or significant piece of work at the speed of light while ignoring the fact that their hastened pace is producing quickly made crap.

Somewhere between those two is what you want. You want a reasonably fast pace while producing optimal quality. It can be achieved, and there are great people out there who do this all the time – usually created by experience and knowledge of what should be done when.

Using measurable goals

One of my former management colleagues tells me that when you give a job to someone, you should also tell them both the time it should take to do the job, and the standard to which the job is to be done. She says that giving a job to someone without those pieces of information and then criticizing their time or quality after the fact is nonsense. I believe that a manager should also take the time to state that they will be available to help them and provide needed resources.

For routine work tasks, changes and new methods of doing the work should be spelled out by the manager. Most importantly, managers must ensure everyone has received critical information (updates and revised expectations and goals) that will help workers do the best possible job. Without a defined timeframe to complete projects and tasks, and meet current or revised standards, no one can get their work done.

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If your employees appear incapable of doing the work needed to hit crucial goals, the next step is a closed-door meeting with the employee to determine if they understand what is expected of them and to find out if there are skill gaps that could prevent your employees from completing their work. During this type of meeting, present the facts in a simple and direct fashion. But be respectful because a job can be such a huge part of someone’s life and self-image.

Once you have provided information, expectations, resources and training, and your employees still don’t meet the time and quality standards then, perhaps, it's time for these employees to find other jobs that best meet their deliberate work style.

At the end of the day, you are accountable for getting all work done – and done through the efforts of qualified workers. So, you can sit on this problem or take action to have a well-functioning team get the job done.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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