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Determining the Right Behavior to Positively Reinforce

The world of work has been much safer in the past 10 years thanks in part to a process called “Behavior-Based Safety. ”We know that unsafe behavior is the root-cause of most accidents and injuries; behavior-based safety (BBS) specifically pinpoints the unsafe behaviors that lead to injuries and the safe behaviors that prevent injuries.

For instance, we know that lifting injuries are one of the most common injuries in the workplace. We are all guilty of unsafe lifting behavior at one time or another, and improper lifting technique will eventually lead to an injury. Unsafe lifting, like most unsafe behavior is caused by the natural reinforcement embedded in the behavior. Proper body positioning, putting on protective equipment, placing tools in the proper position—safe behavior usually takes more time, is more inconvenient, and more uncomfortable for the employee; it requires focus and attention.

Paradoxically, unsafe behavior provides the opposite consequences for the performer—it takes less time, less effort,less discomfort—and generally requires less focus and attention.In BBS, frontline employees perform intermittent behavioral observations of their peers in order to give them feedback on their work methods. The purpose of these observations is to positively reinforce employees for doing things the safe way. All employees become observers and are themselves observed.

BBS has achieved astounding decreases in accidents and injuries around the world. The major reason is that it provides positive consequences—positive reinforcement—for the right behavior, for safe behavior. If positive reinforcement were not provided by management and peers for safe behavior, natural consequences—the comfort and convenience of time and effort saving short cuts would continue to favor unsafe work methods.

A contributing factor to BBS’s success is that work behavior can be observed and therefore counted and measured; hence “safety” (safe behavior) can be measured. Pre-BBS safety management systems used “downstream” measures of accidents and injuries (results data), whereas BBS incorporates “upstream” process measures—safe behaviors.

This systematic approach to behavior—ensuring that the right behavior gets positively reinforced—can and should be extended to quality, waste management, productivity, and customer service related work performance. Specific job functions, work groups and departments can identify critical behaviors that encourage performance improvement and excellence.

TQM, Six Sigma, and Lean initiatives have institutionalized processes for identifying waste, redundancy and parallel processes. Problem solving methods like SIPOC diagrams, cause and effect (fishbone) diagrams, and flowcharts do not drill-down to the behavioral level. As in safety, the lowest common dominator of causation resides in the specific behaviors of the performer.

Behaviors are the best process measures, because they can be observed (or self-recorded as they happen by the performer) and counted in real-time. Understanding how to identify critical, value-added behaviors provides a form of “just-in-time” process management—it provides for a high level of controllability and influence prior to measures of results.

Ergonomics requires precise descriptions (operational definitions) of behaviors to engineer job design and prevent overuse injuries. If you apply that same level of descriptive precision to value added behaviors through out your organization—through problem solving and performance improvement group processes—you will experience substantial increases in performance. The systematic measurement of behavior is an untapped reservoir of performance improvement and profitability in organizations.

If you are skeptical, gather 5 or 10 of your employees from a specific department, maybe a group already working on an improvement team and ask them to make a list of 3 things that the employees in their department could do on a daily basis that would improve customer service or product quality or reduce waste. You will be asking them to identify value added behaviors, things that some or all of them can start doing today to impact the bottom line. They must be behaviors, not results or abstract concepts like—“show more initiative.” They have to be physical things that they can either say or do—that can be observed and counted or self-recorded on a checklist by the performer. Things like:

  • Check body posture against ergonomic recommendations prior to starting each new document.
  • Ask a coworker (safety buddy) to intermittently observe you lifting during the day and tell you when you are lifting correctly or incorrectly
  • At the close of each transaction, tell the customer, “Thank you for your business Mr. Jones.”
  • Recheck the contents of each package against the receipt before you hand the final the customer their purchased items.
  • Replace all tools in their designated positions when the job is finished.
  • Include comments about safety in every discussion with your employees

The behaviors that you identify and choose to systematically track are the behaviors that you should be positively reinforcing. If left to awareness and discretion—to chance, the best opportunities to use positive reinforcement are usually overlooked. As we review individual performers, we know they should be positively reinforced for voluntarism, creativity, innovation, and other forms of discretionary effort. In order to successfully encourage employees to apply their efforts to tactical and strategic organizational objectives, we need to create a behavior management system within the organization that focuses their behavior toward those objectives.

Each department, work group or job position can keep a list of critical behaviors—in a checklist format. When a specific behavior is performed, the employee can put a mark by that behavior which can then be tabulated to create a database for those behaviors. Individual behavioral checklists become self-management tools for employees and can be used for individual performance coaching. They can be used as interim, mid or long range performance augmentation tools. I have helped clients create these lists in every type of business and with every type of job function. Without a system for identifying and measuring critical value added behaviors, feedback and positive reinforcement are rarely delivered.

Most leaders believe that teaching their managers and supervisors about the importance of performance feedback and positive reinforcement are sufficient to prompt them to apply them. Books and workshops are poor investments without a system in place to drive the management behavior that will drive the employee behavior that will pay off in improved performance and profitability. Questions like, “What do we need to be positively reinforcing this week? What are the priority behaviors based on our current issues?”—should be a routine part of every management discussion.