Use Your ABC's to Drive Lean Six Sigma Performance!

While Lean Six Sigma started in the manufacturing industry it has migrated into the transactional business world where much of the project work has shifted from changing machinery, technology, tooling, etc., to changing what people do-in other words, transactional Lean Six Sigma is mostly about changing human behavior. In some respects this has increased the complexity of successfully completing a project because instead of just implementing things that do what they are supposed to do each and every time (i.e. new machines, tooling, etc.) we now have to implement new behaviors to make the improvements work.

Unfortunately, what drives human behavior is not part of the “normal” Lean Six Sigma training in most organizations, which is, arguably, why many companies struggle to succeed with their deployments. In this first of a series of postings related to human behavior, I share one of the foundational concepts in behavioral science-the ABC’s.

The science behind why we do what we do has been around for decades (Google B.F. Skinner and behavior modification to find the foundational research), but I would argue not much has been done to make it a part of the education and training found in business schools and professional training courses such as Lean Six Sigma. Because of this lack of education, training, and understanding, much of what we focus on to change behavior leads to ineffective results.

The ABC’s of Behavior

All behavior can be associated to what happens before and / or after the behavior. What happens before behavior takes place is called an antecedent. Some examples of Lean Six Sigma antecedents include:

· Training

· Setting goals (# of projects, financial savings, etc.)

· Leadership support

· Identifying projects

· Getting selected to go to training

Most of what we do in the Lean Six Sigma world is focused on antecedents, but unfortunately only around 20 percent of behavior is driven by what happens before it occurs. What drives most of behavior are what is known as consequences. Consequences can be classified into one of four types that include:

· Positive reinforcement (R+)

· Negative reinforcement (R-)

· Punishment (P+)

· Penalty (P-)

Positive reinforcement is different for everyone, but essentially it is anything that leads to the behavior recurring. For some this might be public recognition, hand written notes, or an email from your manager saying you did a great job. Negative reinforcement are things you want to escape or avoid. Examples of negative reinforcement include the fear of losing your job or getting “chewed out” for something you’ve done. Punishment happens when you get something you don’t want, for example, a speeding ticket when you are driving too fast. Finally, penalties are those things you lose that you actually want. The most common example that may come to mind if you are a parent is when you take a toy away from your child when they are misbehaving.

Both positive and negative reinforcement can be used to increase behaviors, whereas punishment and penalties are used to decrease behavior. Each of these consequences is not equal in their ability to change behavior. Research suggests positive reinforcement is by far the most effective way to change what people do. Unfortunately, in most organizations the prevalent form of consequences are negative reinforcement. This generally leads to doing just enough to not get in trouble. Sadly, what we are left with are individuals working at a minimal level of performance when they could be working to their full potential, something Maslow referred to a self-actualization.

In modern terms self-actualization is similar to being fully engaged in your work. From a behavioral aspect, this is commonly referred to as discretionary effort-in other words, going far above what is expected, and maximizing one’s true capabilities. Think about this for a second-are you working to your full potential every day? I’m guessing most of you are not. How big an impact could you make in your organization if you were working to your full potential each and every day? Now multiply that times the number of people in your company and think about how significant an impact it could have on your organization’s results!

Using the ABC’s to Improve Lean Six Sigma Performance

The first step in identifying opportunities for improvement using the ABC’s with Lean Six Sigma projects is to identify the behavior you want more of. For example, if you want projects to be completed in a certain amount of time, identifying the behaviors that need to take place to meet those objectives is a logical first step. One of the activities I’ve discovered that is linked to project cycle time is routine team meetings. My experience has led me to believe that teams that meet infrequently or use a haphazard approach to scheduling meetings tend to be less successful, and even if they do succeed they usually take months longer than those teams who meet on a regular basis (i.e. same day, time, location, weekly or bi-weekly). A common goal for all Lean Six Sigma programs is short project cycle time, so how can we drive the behavior that leads to having routine team meetings, ultimately reducing project cycle time?

1. Determine the Desired Behavior

In this analysis I’ve identified routine team meetings as the behavior I want. This alone is not enough to start the ABC analysis because what does “routine team meetings” mean? We need to be able to quantify the behavior we want to see or hear. In this case I’ve defined routine meetings as those that happen at least bi-weekly with 85% team participation that include a written agenda and last at least two hours.

2. Identify Antecedents Leading to Behavior

The antecedents for the behavior I want include a number of actions such as scheduling the meeting, sending out invitations, creating an agenda, and reserving a room. Keep in mind that antecedents, while important, only drive around 20% of behaviors. Just because we’ve planned and prepared for a meeting doesn’t mean the behavior of having meetings bi-weekly will continue to occur.

3. Determine Consequences That Drive Desired Behavior and Provide Timely R+

Consequences are different for everyone. The best place to start with understanding what is positively reinforcing for someone is to simply ask them. Some people like public recognition, others may like hand written notes or emails, I personally like it when I am recognized in front of those I work with and for. We’re all different, so making sure you have the right positive reinforcement is critical to making the behavior continue. Also, remember there are different types of reinforcement, but positive reinforcement is what will lead to sustained desired behaviors, so that is where your focus should be.

Another important consideration is the timing of the reinforcement. Research suggests that when we receive positive reinforcement while we are actually doing the desired behavior it has a greater impact and will more likely lead to continuing the behavior. Knowing for certain that we will receive positive reinforcement if we demonstrate the desired behavior also increases the chances we will continue to exhibit the behavior as well. Summarizing this step in the process then comes down to 1) making the reinforcement positive, 2) delivering it in a timely manner, ideally, as the behavior is taking place, and 3) ensuring the individual knows that with a high degree of certainty they will receive positive reinforcement if they demonstrate the behavior.

4. Monitor Results and Modify Consequences as Needed

The proof will be in the results you see after implementing your plan. Before monitoring the results you will want to determine how you will track performance. In this case I simply used a spreadsheet to monitor the meeting schedule of the individual I was working with. I attended the meetings so that provided an opportunity to give instant positive reinforcement, which for her was public recognition in front of her team and champion. Sometimes, however, you may not see a change or sustainment of the behavior, which suggests you may not be using the right positive reinforcement. In this case I would recommend using another method of positive reinforcement from the list you developed with the person you are reinforcing. Even though we think we know what positively reinforces us sometimes we can be wrong, and the proof is in the behavior you see after trying the reinforcement.

A PhD in psychology isn’t required to change behavior, you just need to understand the levers that must be pulled (i.e. positive reinforcement) to create and sustain the desired behavior. Once you identify the right reinforcement, then the challenge becomes delivering the reinforcement as planned. To change behavior it takes work from both the person doing the behavior and the one reinforcing it so remember to reinforce, reinforce, reinforce when you see the desired behavior!

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