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Making Behavior Change Stick

Posted by admin on November 29, 2012

There is no doubt about it: We are creatures of habit.  Once we learn something it is hard to unlearn it (even if what we originally learned was incorrect).  This was driven home by a colleague who was impacted by Superstorm Sandy and lost electricity for a week.  Even after three days of no power, he would walk into a room and hit the light switch.  He didn’t even think about it.  Then he would mutter to himself and laugh about it. 

We find the same thing with people who are effective at problem prevention and problem solving.  Once they learn these critical thinking skills and become proficient in using them, they aren’t aware that they are applying the skills.  Similar to many sports activities, the action is stored in muscle memory.  In this case the muscle is in the ole’ noggin. 

We’ve had the privilege of working with some really skilled problem solvers and with manufacturing companies that have made these skills part of their conduct of operating.  Here are critical areas these companies focus on to make behavior change stick.

Learning – These skills can be learned in a formal training session, on-line, from a book or mentor.   We find that having a live instructor allows participants to clarify their understanding so they get it right without having to unlearn and relearn.  Regardless of the method used, it is important that employees learn the same processes for avoiding and solving problems, and that they use a common vocabulary when addressing these issues.  Avoiding and solving problems are team skills and having a common process and vocabulary allow team members to communicate effectively.  Our preferred learning method uses in-class instruction, case studies and on-job application, which allows workers to focus on real-life problems.  Employees make headway on job issues and we can evaluate if they are using the processes properly (remember what we said earlier about even incorrect learning can become ingrained).

Coaching – We aren’t going to pretend that employees will become proficient after a few days of training.  That is why we recommend that our clients train internal Process Coaches who can facilitate the use of these skills with employees who have recently completed the training.  This facilitation and coaching helps hone employees’ skills and moves them along the path to proficiency.  Supervisors should also become proficient in these skills so they can guide their employees on day-to-day issues.

Environment – No matter how proficient employees become in using these skills, behavior change will not stick if the work environment does not support use of the skills.  A non-supportive environment will beat down any enthusiasm and behavior.  So management and supervisors must make a conscious and concerted effort to give employees time to use these skills.  Removing negative consequences for the desired behavior is the goal here.  And integrating use of the skills into production and maintenance systems makes them part of the way the company does business. 

Rewards – It is just as important to build positive consequences for employee behavior change.  These rewards can be everything from “catching” employees doing the right thing, recognition in company communications and meetings, bonuses, promotions, etc.  The goal is to make it clear that employees who help avoid and solve problems are going to be rewarded.  Nothing fosters behavior change like positive reinforcement.

Behavior change is the goal of any problem prevention and problem solving initiative.  Focusing on the processes learned, developing the skills to apply the processes, integrating them into work routines and rewarding the desired behavior are all critical to the success of the initiative and making behavior change stick.