Sometimes, leaders must find solutions to performance problems that can require delicate and intuitive skills!

Recently, I read a book that I felt was extremely important and a useful performance management tool. Analyzing Performance Problems: or You Really Oughta Wanna by Dr. Robert Mager and Peter Pipe is a no nonsense and straightforward look at the issues related to performance problems.


Although the book is more than a decade old, there is great and relevant value here. It may seem like a simple and somewhat short read, but why should a solution require a complex strategy?

New Is Not Always Better

Some things that have worked in the past may work well into the future. Quite often the assumption is made that 21st century problems require 21st century solutions. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 states: “there is nothing new under the sun,” NIV.

A hammer drives in a nail. There may be new and innovative ways to use this principle, but they are all based upon the same simple physical laws. Every action has an equal and opposite action.

Go Below the Surface

The first issue the authors discuss is to determine what the actual real issue or issues are. The visible or apparent issue is not necessarily the real problem. In fact, it is often not. It’s somewhat like going into a doctor with a severe pain and the doctor just prescribes pain medicine without ever examining you.

What is the pain caused by? This is a question that should be answered before prescribing a solution.

Mager & Pipe ask a series of questions that delve more deeply into the problem before developing a solution. For example, suppose a manager proposes that there is more comprehensive training needed. The authors would ask why the manager believes there is a training problem.

While this is a simple question, it demonstrates the reason why so many performance problems tend to go unresolved. You cannot solve a problem by working on the symptoms. You need to work on the source to heal it.

Systematizing the Approach

The book also lays out a very comprehensive flow chart (see below) on questions to ask as well as directions the answers should take you. Performance problems can be resolved systematically with such a road map. While understandably human and human relations issues tend to be somewhat complex, you can often find solid direction with such a management tool.

analyzing performance problems

What is the Cost?

A second issue that the book addresses is whether the issue is important enough to even pursue a solution. This includes a cost effective analysis of the potential procedures to correct the performance problem.

One person unhappy with the lighting in a work area may not be a sufficient reason to spend thousands of dollars to change the ambient environment.

However, thirty or fifty people could possibly justify such an undertaking. What would happen if nothing was done? This question should also be asked to ascertain the value proposition of addressing the problem.

Is there a Quick Fix?

If the problem is correctly discovered and is worth fixing, is there a quick fix? This is an important thought process. If a hammer will do, why not just use a hammer?

Some leaders need to have something to hang their hat on and say, “I did that.” Others do not care who solves the problem, only that the problem is solved.

One employee out of fifty is cold all of the time in the work environment. Should an engineer be brought in to redesign the heating and cooling system, or should the company just buy a small space heater for that employee? Sometimes simple is the best answer.

Mager & Pipe also bring in some small sample case studies to bring to light the real issues and simple analysis. While these cases are somewhat simplified, the examples do provide a clear picture of the analysis and solutions.

Rewarding the Wrong Activity

Make sure the problem is not based on a system that is inadvertently rewarding the wrong activities. The example the authors use is that of a maintenance group that should be completing periodic preventive maintenance of equipment.

The PMs are not being undertaken as often as prescribed primarily because the maintenance people are supposed to complete so many calls in a day.


The workers feel that the PMs do not need to be done as often, and repairs are easy and do not require much time.

In this situation, the lack of accomplishing the PMs was actually being rewarded by requiring so many maintenance calls be made in a day.

A Good Reference Tool

This book provides a good number of questions and solutions, as well as a great systematic approach to problem identification and solutions. I would, however, like to have seen more methods of discovering the real value of problem resolution, as opposed to eliminating the issue entirely.

While the authors do recommend considering whether a problem should be resolved or the process eliminated, this could have used a little more detail and emphasis. This likelihood should be explored more than it is often considered.

Over the years, processes get built on processes until no one can tell why a given process is even completed any more. This can happen very easily in established multi step processes that tend to be cross-functional or distributed between groups or departments.

In order to ascertain the real value of importance of certain steps in given processes, you need to bring all the players. Experience has shown when one considers the steps involved and ask questions as to why certain things are required, there are times when no one can explain why something is completed the way it is.

The Simplest Solution is Usually the Best Solution

Just because a process or system is in place or has been done for a long period of time, does not mean it should exist. Mager & Pipe do a good job of providing resources and tools that can help leaders accomplish their task more efficient and cost effectively.

Leaders are faced with cost issues, time issues, leadership skills issues, and a host of other problems vying for their time and consideration. Some of those problems and issues can be identified quickly and resolved simply.

To be an effective leader one needs to be able to determine the real issues and utilize the right tools to fix the performance problem. A reference tool such as this can generate good food for thought.

How Do You Analyze Performance Problems?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Mager, R. & Pipe, P., (1997). Analyzing Performance Problems: Or You Really Oughta Wanna. Atlanta, GA: CEP Press.

Tim Cummuta
Tim is a Business Consultant in Strategic Planning, Productivity, HR, Sales & Marketing, and Risk Management. He has a Master’s Degree in Financial Planning and is pursuing a Ph.D in Organization & Management at Capella University.