Do we really pay for performance?

Success in the workplace can often come down to dumb luck

It was a great day for a conference in Key Biscayne, mid-winter and like a monsoon outside. Nobody wanted to be out there; the beaches were empty.

The late Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who had taught the Japanese and so many other people how to build high-quality products, was the main speaker; I was a supporting speaker. We were doing a series of these run by MIT’s Center for Advanced Engineering Studies, but the good doctor didn’t seem to be sticking to the agenda this time around. He was severely criticizing our performance review systems, and it was not going over well.

At lunch, I sat next to another speaker, Dr. Bill Scherkenbach, then director of statistical methods for Ford and an ardent Deming devotee. I made a casual comment about how Deming was always so right, but he didn’t seem to be on this. After all, having gotten some great reviews, I didn’t think there was anything wrong.

Scherkenbach proceeded to explain just how wrong I was. When he got back to Detroit, he sent me his papers on the subject, but I still wasn’t getting it.

Some time later, I went to Pennsylvania to visit some cousins. One afternoon we had a friendly poker game. Beana, who had just married in, sat at the table, and her husband didn’t want her to play. Nonetheless, she wasn’t getting up.

She knew nothing about poker. She couldn’t bluff or even draw cards intelligently. When someone called, she would lay down her hand. “Tell me what I’ve got!” She walked away with all the money, maybe a whole 30 bucks or so.

By most measures of success, she was the best poker player that afternoon, but she didn’t even know the basic rules or which hands beat which. That’s when I began to understand what Deming and Scherkenbach had been trying to tell me. In any performance review, how can we tell what part of the performance was attributable to skill and/or effort and what was attributable to sheer dumb luck?

Winners and ‘losers’

We like to think we pay for performance, but do we really? Take sales, for instance. The more you sell, the more you make, and it’s easy to tell the top performers. They’re the top wage-earners.

Shortly after the poker game, I went to St. Louis for Anheuser-Busch. At the time, McDonnell Douglas was in trouble. It was an enormous account, but they had suddenly stopped buying. The salespeople were desperate. A month later, I found myself in Seattle for Boeing. They were doing great, and our salespeople were having a grand old time while making a lot of money.

Do you think the salespeople in Seattle were any better than the ones in St. Louis? Perhaps some were, but overall? I think they were just lucky enough to have a large account that was doing well.

OK, so you’re not in sales. How about engineering or project management? Don’t we value the folks who bring the projects in on time and under budget better than the “losers”? (Sorry, that’s what I hear them called.)

Could it be that the winners are bringing in humdrum projects while the losers are bringing in leading-edge efforts that could “change the world,” and that keep running into unanticipated technical problems?

We just love to compartmentalize everything to make it easier, to decide what’s good and what isn’t. And, of course, money is the easiest and best common denominator. Whoever makes the most or has the most is the best. A billionaire is much better than a mere millionaire. In fact, are millionaires even impressive anymore?

Yes, I know. This is how it’s always been; why change now?

Most people I speak with talk about how bad the economy is. No doubt, there are niches where this simply isn’t true, but overall we can say that what we’ve always done does not seem to be working as well as it did.

Let’s say I’m busting my hump to make my numbers or bring a project in, but my colleague has a lucky account or humdrum project. He’s working 20 hours a week and getting accolades. If a loser like me keeps trying, it’s only because I’m trying to do the right thing. There’s nothing in the reward system to encourage me. In fact, next time, I want a humdrum project.

Is there any real future for your company when the unrecognized, mostly capable people start feeling this way?

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or

Categories: Business Advice