Bees show how to measure performance, productivity

From Mary Harker
Chief Human Resource Officer

Performance Management is a broad topic and has several components to it. The Executive Leadership team is committed to making the most of performance management in order to align the department top to bottom and ensure that we all focusing on the same goals: improving safety, enhancing mobility and support the economy.

I want to give full attention to this subject so the next three articles will address a different element of an effective performance management system. First, I want to start out with a fable. I don’t know who to give credit to for this fable, but I found it to be a good illustration of what gets measured, gets done…even if the wrong thing is being measured and the importance of goal clarity. It’s the fable of the Beekeepers and Their Bees.

Once upon a time, there were two beekeepers who each had a beehive. The beekeepers worked for a company called Bees, Inc. The company’s customers loved its honey and wanted the business to produce more honey than it had the previous year. As a result, each beekeeper was told to produce more honey at the same quality. With different ideas about how to do this, the beekeepers designed different approaches to improve the performance of their hives.

The first beekeeper established a bee performance management approach that measured how many flowers each bee visited. At considerable cost to the beekeeper, an extensive measurement system was created to count the flowers each bee visited. The beekeeper provided feedback to each bee at mid-season on his individual performance, but the bees were never told about the hive’s goal to produce more honey so that Bees, Inc. could increase honey sales. The beekeeper created special awards for the bees who visited the most flowers.

The second beekeeper also established a bee performance management approach, but this approach communicated to each bee the goal of the hive—to produce more hones. This beekeeper and his bees measured two aspects of their performance: the amount of nectar each bee brought back to the hive and the amount of honey the hive produced. The performance of each bee and the hive’s overall performance were charted and posted on the hive’s bulletin board for all bees to see. The beekeeper created a few awards for the bees that gathered the most nectar, but he also established a hive incentive program that rewarded each bee in the hive based on the hive’s production of honey—the more honey produced, the more recognition each bee would receive.

At the end of the season, the beekeepers evaluated their approaches. The first beekeeper found that his hive had indeed increased the number of flowers visited, but the amount of honey produced by the hive had dropped. The Queen Bee reported that because the bees were so busy trying to visit as many flowers as possible, they limited the amount of nectar they would carry so they could fly faster. Also, because the bees felt they were competing against each other for awards, they would not share valuable information with each other (like the location of the flower-filled fields they’d stopped at on the way back to the hive) that could have helped improve the performance of all the bees. (After all was said and done, one of the high-performing bees told the beekeeper that if he’d been told that the real goals was to make more honey rather than to visit more flowers, he would have done his work completely differently). As the beekeeper handed out the awards to individual bees, unhappy bussing was heard in the background.

The second beekeeper, however, had very different results. Because each bee in his hive was focused on the hive’s goals of producing more honey, the bees had concentrated their efforts on gathering more nectar to produce more honey than ever before. The bees worked together to determine the highest nectar-yielding flowers and to create quicker processes for depositing the nectar they’d gathered. They also worked together to help increase the amount of nectar gathered by the poor performers. The Queen Bee of this hive reported that the poor performers either improved their performance or transferred to another hive. Because the hive had reached its goal, the beekeeper awarded each bee his portion of the hive incentive payment. The beekeeper was also surprised to hear a loud, happy buzz and a jubilant flapping of wings as he rewarded the individual high-performing bees with special recognition.

The moral of this story is: measuring and recognizing accomplishments rather than activities—and giving feedback to the bees—often improved the results of the hive.

Although this fable may somewhat oversimplify performance management, it illustrates the importance of measuring and recognizing accomplishments rather than activities.

Published 2-4-2011