Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


Mental Models: Barriers

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You’ve probably heard the old saying that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. While that may be true when it comes to travels, it’s especially true when it comes to the mental model of top performers.

Too often people focus on barriers and decide that fighting through the barrier to get things done is just too hard. Barriers make performance an ordeal. They make everything more difficult and, in many cases, people are stopped altogether.

Top performers, however, view barriers as mere speed bumps to be overcome—sometimes quickly—sometimes over time. Once over the speed bump, top performers are free to continue their relentless pursuit of excellence. Barriers are just part of the adventure. Or, in the words of another pithy saying “the best views come after the steepest climbs.” Top performers know that and keep their focus on the view at the end of the climb.

What kind of barriers fit this description? In a recent project involving senior executives, average performers often talked about the complex matrix organization as a significant barrier to their being able to accomplish their goals. The matrix was too complicated, required too much time to understand and navigate, and left communications channels too confused.

Meanwhile, the top performing executives talked about the same matrix in very different terms. To them, the matrix was a key to how they got things done. They welcomed the matrix because it offered so many avenues to build relationships, enlist help, and accomplish their goals.

To one group, a barrier is an ordeal; to the top performers, it’s simply part of the path on their adventure.


Question to ponder:

  • How do you and your team see obstacles, as barriers or as speed bumps that are part of the adventure?


Barriers to Top Performance

Image by Ladyheart at

Image by Ladyheart at

Before we dig into the process of equipping people to produce top results, we thought it would be worthwhile to discuss one key bit of the process. Fortunately—or unfortunately—depending on your point of view, a TOPS analysis often uncovers barriers unintentionally erected by the organization that prevent people from excelling. Those barriers are frequently the unintended consequences of otherwise well-meaning decisions. Let’s use an example to explain.

We were asked to analyze the performance of TOP operators in an oil refinery with the goal of developing a training program to improve the performance of both the operators and the refinery. Oil refineries are inherently dangerous places that can be made safe by the dedicated hard work of management and operators working in cooperation. A key objective of the refinery was to find and eliminate gas leaks throughout the plant. Besides being dangerous, leaks are costly. Management requested the new training program include information to help operators identify and report leaks. This request was based on the fact that, while there were clearly leaks to be found, very few were routinely reported.

To meet the safety requirements of conducting observations in a refinery, we wore the usual protective equipment, including fire-retardant suits, safety shoes, hardhats, and detectors designed to reveal any exposure to potentially harmful gases. During the course of the TOPS analysis, we were following, helping, and observing one of the best performers. On our list of particular things to observe was what the operator did if he encountered a leak: specifically what steps he would take to identify and report it.

It didn’t take long to find out. We quickly developed a rapport with the operator as he walked us around while he conducted his daily inspection. As we approached one piece of equipment, he asked us to take off our gas detectors, place them in our pockets, and hold our breath for just a few seconds while he took a quick pressure reading. With some trepidation, we did. As soon as he recorded the reading from the gauge and walked quickly away from that spot, we asked about the strange request. He explained there was a minor leak in that piece of equipment but that it wasn’t bad enough to go through the hassle of reporting it. As we dug into the reporting process, we understood the issue.

Management took the leak reporting so seriously that they had instituted a very formal and rigorous tracking system. This system used a complex computer program that could only be accessed through a terminal in the main refinery operations building—about a half mile from the actual equipment. The combined effect of a long walk and having to use an unfamiliar and unfriendly computer program was so discouraging that operators simply ignored leaks until they reached a severity that demanded attention. There was no training issue, just an unintentional barrier that made it difficult and unappealing to do the right thing.

Once found, barriers of that sort are easy to eliminate.

We’ve found that almost all organizations have these types of hidden barriers working against excellence. Finding and eliminating them is a necessary step in driving excellence.


Question to ponder:

What barriers to top performance might be lurking in your organization?

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