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Applications of Behavioral Technology - Before BBS: Part 1

Behavior-based safety (BBS) processes, borrow heavily from the science of behavior analysis, using behavioral tools to decrease at-risk behavior and increase the frequency of safe behavior. Many behavioral tools, included in but also in addition to those used in BBS, enable organizations to influence the behaviors that drive overall business success. In fact, the tools of behavioral technology have been applied in a wide variety of business and industrial settings, consistently improving human performance by at least 20 to 30 percent.

It is time for organizations to fully utilize the behavioral technology that is the foundation of their behavior-based safety processes. Organizations could and should maximize the investment made in BBS by expanding, adapting and applying behavioral technology and employee observational skills to the company’s strategic operational outcomes – productivity, quality, Six Sigma, Lean Principles, Wellness, and so forth.

Behavioral tools, employee participation, observational skills, steering committee involvement can all be utilized to build upon and add value to your current BBS process. A systematic integration of behavioral tools into all areas of operations would not only improve performance and your training investment, but would also strengthen your existing BBS process.

How Were Behavioral Tools First Applied?

The first applications of behavior analysis in the work environment occurred in the early 1970s. Ed Feeney at Emery Air Freight, Richard Mallott at Western Michigan University, and Aubrey Daniels at Behavioral Systems applied behavioral technology to organizational performance problems and attained significant improvements. Key performance objectives for a business unit were targeted. The variables selected included quality, productivity, timeliness, error rate, cost control and turnover.

Behavioral technology brought some tools to management practices. The notion that we should be managing behavior “what people do at work,” instead of trying to change their personalities (using inspirational rhetoric to change attitudes), was a new one. Leaders, managers, and supervisors did not know what a “behavior” was or was not. The behavior of “putting on your safety glasses,” is clear and obvious today; 30 years ago safety management was not that precise. Effort was dedicated to changing an employee’s attitude about safety – getting him or her to “think safety,” and to be “conscientious” about safety.

Other ideas that behavioral technology brought to management was concepts like “positive feedback;” providing employees with specific, timely information about what they “did right” that would improve safety or performance. Until behavioral technology became popular, the only feedback employees received was information about what they were doing wrong.

Finally, the concept of positive reinforcement – the idea that value added behavior and good performance should be recognized, rewarded, celebrated, and acknowledged was unheard of 40 years ago. Safety recognition was stalled on downstream indicators and results. No one understood that when an employee was rewarded for “doing something right,” they would tend to repeat that behavior.

In the 1970s, we trained managers and supervisors in the science of behavior analysis, and then they created action plans to apply behavioral tools systematically. They identified important behaviors that would improve quality and productivity and reduce waste. We initiated performance measurement, and graphically presented daily performance feedback. When performance improved they regularly and promptly delivered recognition and reward to employees.

These early applications brought significant performance improvement in a short period of time. The introduction of a performance management system and positive recognition and reward created almost instant operations improvement when used correctly. Turnover was cut in half, absenteeism reduced by 70%, productivity increased by 40%, machine running time increased from 75% to 98%. Results so staggeringly successful, that Roger Milliken, the owner of Milliken textiles systematically applied behavioral technology in 60 of his plants. Milliken later became the first Malcolm Baldridge Award winner.

Although some of these methods are practiced in today’s business environment, keep in mind that measurement and feedback on behavior were conspicuously missing from most organizations in the 1970s. Also, most managers and supervisors were not trained in managing performance and tried to motivate workers by threats and intimidation. The transition from "my way or the highway," management styles to "Reward and Recognition," based management has been a long one - full of missteps and wrong turns.

More about this in Part 2.