Diagnose First. Prescribe Second.

Diagnose First. Prescribe Second.

By Geary Rummler and Alan Brache

The pharmaceutical industry has developed a host of effective medicines. Penicillin, for example, is a drug of demonstrated effectiveness. However, it probably won’t help a cataract. There’s no evidence that cortisone will do anything for a fever. Aspirin has been called a wonder drug, but it is harmful to someone suffering from an ulcer. Unfortunately, every effective medicine addresses only a limited number of ailments. Professional diagnosticians, doctors, are paid to match medications with patients’ illnesses.

Similarly, there are lots of approved performance improvement “medicines” out there. Training is one form of medication. Reorganization is another. A new information system is another. An incentive compensation plan is yet another. The question is, who are the “doctors” being paid to match these and other medications with our organizations’ illnesses?

Typically, the professionals who are paid to solve organization performance problems and to help capitalize on performance opportunities are in staff functions, such as human resources (HR), information technology (IT), and industrial engineering (IE). That’s fine. We cannot expect line managers to be masters of all the possible performance improvement interventions. However, we have not, in general, carved out the appropriate roles for our staff people. They tend to be perceived (and, often, to perceive themselves) as providers of specific solutions. For example, the HR folks provide training solutions, the IT people provide computer systems solutions, and the IE mission is to provide workflow streamlining and ergonomic solutions. 

Unlike diagnostically focused doctors, however, our staffers are frequently purveyors of their functions’ unique brands of patent medicine claiming that their potions will cure what ails you. We believe that every staff analyst or consultant, regardless of the breadth of his or her “product line,” should be first of all a diagnostician. A dose of performance medication that does not address the disease is at best, a waste of money. At worst, it causes side effects more serious than the original affliction.