Putting the NEED in Needs Assessment

It’s time for the next installment of the Performance Improvement Process Model or PIPM. A couple weeks ago, I talked about the difference between an opportunity and a “good” idea. This post will address the next step in the model “Want or Need.”

I’m an old dog. As hard as it might be to teach me a new trick, my good friend and mentor Dr. Roger Kaufman keeps trying. He has written extensively about the difference between needs and wants. The problem starts when we used need as a verb instead of a noun. I do this ALL the time – publicly and in private correspondence with Dr K. Thankfully he is patient and reminds me of the error and we keep moving forward. One day it might just stick!

When we use need as a verb, like “I need a new boat” (my wife may have heard this once or a dozen times) we are going right to the solution and not considering other potential options. Seriously! Look at it! In dire need of replacement.

My 208 Lowe FS175

I know… it’s a sweet boat and I have caught a lot of fish in it. There is no need here what-so-ever. There were some issues with the old gal (my boat NOT my wife). Mostly ancillary equipment like the trolling motor, bilge pump and *gasp* the stereo didn’t work. Long story short, I didn’t need a new boat, rather, I wanted to get all the little irritants fixed so my fishing trips would be more enjoyable. I have talked about this misuse of need and the jump straight to solutions in past blog posts as well. See Just gimme training and Just because it says performance doesn’t mean it’s there (sadly).

How did I get onto boats and fishing!? Okay – seriously, if I keep using need the wrong way, what’s the right way? It’s so simple. Kaufman (1998) has been trying for decades to get everyone on the same page and define it as “a gap in results.” For example, I want to catch more fish. I currently catch an average of 20 a summer. I want to catch 50. The gap between my current and desired results is 30 fish. A new boat may or may not close that gap. In reality, the best way to close in on 50 is simply to spend more time fishing.

Let’s shift over to a work related example of needs. Did you know that cashiers get measured on the number of items they scan per hour? It’s called the ISAH or “Items Scanned per Active Hour” and it is calculated by averaging the total items scanned per hour when cashiers are actively signed into their registers. Generally, good industry performance is 500 ISAH.

In this fictitious example, our experienced cashiers have an average ISAH of 900. The rock stars of retail. Cashiers with 3 months experience or less have an average ISAH of 250. Based on customer feedback, there is dissatisfaction with slower transactions. They prefer to get through the checkout line fast. What’s the need?

The gap in results at the worker (cashier) level is to increase the cashiers ISAH from 250 to 500 or better. The gap in results at the workplace or organizational level is the level of customer dissatisfaction. Improving the cashier’s ISAH will contribute to increased customer satisfaction.

If you can’t describe the problem or opportunity in terms of a gap in results, it’s a want, not a need and you should proceed directly to the stop sign, take a breath and give your problem a second look. It’s probably not the real cause of whatever is giving you business pain. Next up – the Needs Assessment. Stay tuned!


Kaufman, R. (1998) Strategic thinking. A guide to identifying and solving problems. (Revised edition.) International Society for Performance Improvement and the American Society for Training Development. ISBN: 1-56286-051-8.

Opportunities vs. Good Ideas

I’ve decided to embark on a series of posts that walk through my Performance Improvement Process model (below) to add some narrative to each of the steps. First up is “Performance problem or Opportunity.” I want to look directly at the opportunity – and then tackle the problem in the next post.

Have you ever had a boss that comes to you and exclaims “HEY! I’ve got a great idea!!” You have suffered the boss’s good ideas before and you know it’s going to be a long day.

The key difference between an opportunity and a good idea is its alignment – or not – to the individual, organizational and societal contributions that your organization exists to produce.

Oh no! It’s the Good Idea Fairy!

An opportunity will increase the value of your organizational outcomes by improving results at one or more of the three levels. A good idea on the other hand will make work, expend resources and possibly look productive in the short term, without contributing real value at any level.

Describe the Good Idea Fairy? Okay then! This example comes from a large government organization. I was approached by my boss with his weekly great idea. “I want you to find out how much it will cost to get ten video cameras for each school.” The red flags immediately started flying! Having been sent on a number of these “missions” in the past, I knew it was time to dig a little bit and get some details before expending any effort. “Why?” I asked. “I have solved the problem of converting classroom training to e-Learning!” My boss beamed proudly. The senior managers in the organization had directed that as much training as possible should be converted to online delivery without understanding the resource and funding requirements to achieve this lofty goal. “How will we do that with video cameras?” I pressed. “Simple. We will record the instructors giving the lectures in the classroom and put it in the Learning Management System (LMS). Then the instructors will have time to add to the videos and make them into better e-learning while the next group of students watch the videos!”

If you, my reader, come from the learning field – you already see a host of problems with this “good idea.” If you don’t, imagine that the training for your new job consisted of watching someone give a presentation in a video. No interaction. No feedback. No activities. Just video, test, video, test, repeat. Other issues with this plan included the level of effort required to put the videos into the LMS with no extra resources to do the work and the fact that the instructors that would do the e-Learning Development to “improve” the videos had zero training in e-Learning design or development. They are truly experts in their field of work that are brought in to do a tour of duty as an instructor before going back to the field.

The boss had the best intentions and was trying his best to accomplish an impossible task. I explained to him that in the short term, more e-Learning would be created, however, the immediate negative impact on the students learning and the longer-term impact of reduced organizational capability created by poorly trained personnel was a significant risk. By the end of the day, the video idea was shelved.

An opportunity is something new that is aligned to the individual, organizational and societal contributions that your organization exists to produce. It will increase the value of your organizational outcomes by improving results at one or more of the levels of worker, work, workplace and the world within which we exist.