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Growing a Human Performance Culture


Human performance methods help us to understand some key aspects of business: accountability, conservative decision-making, and overall commitment to goals and values. These fundamental principles comprise a larger objective known as organizational alignment.

The concept of organizational alignment derives from years of studying, using and teaching human performance techniques, and even from an old TV rerun, which I’ll soon discuss. The constant challenge is demonstrating to employees how to relate to management and vice versa. I have continued to search for the reason why there are disconnects. It seems that everyone wants the same things, but the processes to achieve them do not reflect these shared goals.

Old TV shows can provide insight. My oldest daughter likes to watch “I Love Lucy” reruns to unwind after a long day of studying and tests at college. One day I walked into the room to find her in the middle of the chocolate factory episode, in which Lucy and Ethel try to land jobs wrapping candy and putting it into boxes.

Lucy and Ethel were in this unfamiliar workplace trying – and hilariously failing – to keep up with the conveyor belt. In an effort to hide their shortcomings, they began to take shortcuts by putting the candy everywhere but in wrappers and boxes. They stuffed it into their hats, aprons and cheeks to conceal that they could not maintain the pace, to avoid their inevitable firing.

The women’s supervisor, pleased that the candy has seemingly been taken care of, gleefully shouts, “Speed it up a little!” The supervisor has no idea how they removed the candy or what behaviors they were modeling, only that the candy was no longer on the table or conveyor belt. The “speed it up a little” command was given to others in the process who were unaware of Lucy and Ethel’s struggles.

We laugh at an episode like this because we can relate to it. We somehow know exactly how Lucy and Ethel felt. Do you know why? It’s because at one time or another we have been right where they were. We have been too afraid to say, “No, we can’t do it safely or effectively at this speed.” If you watch this episode, look behind the two characters at the sign on the wall. You’ll notice that it states, “Danger: Be careful when belt is in motion.”

This old TV show inspired me to look deeper into the issue of organizational misalignment. Why are we misaligned? How did it happen? Normalization of deviation is definitely part of the answer to these questions; however, the larger part of the answer might be staring us in the face. Do we truly know what our values are? Do they align with our goals? Are we demonstrating this in every activity or task? So far, I have not seen evidence of this happening in most organizations.

Getting There From Here
Culture is an interesting thing. It will create itself even in a vacuum. If there is no vision of what the culture should be, one will be created for you. Leadership must look at this quite seriously. The mission, vision, and values that an organization has should be clearly defined, communicated and looked for in every aspect of our daily work practices.

In the absence of expectations, people fill in the blanks. It is imperative that every employee of the organization knows what they are working toward and why. A complete understanding of goals and values allows a person to internalize how important their role is and how they are contributing to the cause.

When our actions do not align with our stated goals and values, someone needs to stop the drift away from the standard. In the case of Lucy and Ethel, they were too afraid to explain that quality was being eliminated in trade for a faster pace. The speed only increased the error-likely situation, resulting in a series of mistakes. Did this line up with the goals and values of the chocolate factory’s leadership team?

Further, did the women’s supervisor understand the goals and values? Were these goals and values displayed in the factory? When was the last time the supervisor was trained about how to provide coaching? How can we be so sure that our entire workforce understands the expectations of goal and value alignment if we do not look for it? One more thought: Why were the last two employees replaced by Lucy and Ethel?

Organizations are complex and, over time, can take on a life form of their own. We have to treat the culture like a garden and tend to it daily. We have to cultivate it, plant seeds, root out the weeds, tend to the vines and then reap the harvest. An unattended garden will surely wither and be overcome with weeds.

Many organizations have already realized that the culture they want and the one they have are not necessarily the same thing. A lot of effort and work has likely gone into making changes, but unfortunately, most human performance programs don’t stick and fade away over time. The good news is that the workforce typically knows it needs to change as well. The ground is softer now than it used to be, and it may even be more fertile for positive change.

When the big rocks are gone and the stubborn roots have been removed, the time to plant is now. The new workforce is entering the industry with expectations and goals of their own. Shouldn’t we take the time to make sure we grow our intended crop?

Planting Seeds
The cool thing about human performance is that it is simply a set of behavioral standards – a common language used to achieve a common goal, to reduce error frequencies and lower their severity. We can teach our entire workforce the same set of behavioral patterns while gaining alignment as a team, a unit, an organized group of error-free performers.

We often overlook this very important step of early fundamental alignment. We have to start at the foundational level or we will miss the boat. Speaking the same language and having a common goal set us up for a better understanding of organizational alignment down the road. Just like buying a sack of corn seeds, you know exactly what you are planting.

Rooting Out the Weeds
If we plant seeds and never go back to look at what is happening in the garden, we will be disappointed in our yield. Expecting that there will never be an insect problem or weeds taking over is a false sense of security. Additionally, we have wasted our time and resources.

In our case, the weeds and insects come in the form of normalization of deviation and ultimately we drift away from our standards. How do we identify this? Go out there and look for it daily. Successful gardening doesn’t happen by sitting on the couch. Similarly, ineffective coaching and supervision occur when management stays behind a desk. You can’t measure what you don’t see.

Coaching and observations are designed to provide a means of looking for small behavioral signs of understanding or drifting. If we see a weed and do nothing about it, it will multiply much faster than the crop you are trying to produce. The first signs of unwanted objects need to be nipped in the bud.

One major organizational weakness is that we generally don’t do a lot of preparation for selecting and training our first-line supervisors. We grab the person who is really good at getting things done and hope that they can get others to perform in the same manner. We typically don’t invest enough time in training this person about how to transition from a frontline worker into a leadership role. Couple that with not understanding the common organizational goals and values, and they spend their time trying to fill in the blanks.

Training our supervisors and other leaders to spot unwanted behaviors allows us to correct issues before they result in a negative consequence. Another value-added piece of observations is the chance to provide positive reinforcement when the right behaviors are displayed. People will give discretionary effort when they feel rewarded for doing the right thing.

Tending to the Vines
One primary principle of human performance technologies is that people will always make mistakes. No one is perfect and even the most elite person is going to mess up eventually. What’s important here is that we do not let it grow to a larger, consequential event.

The best way to increase your harvest is to tend the garden, identifying potential problems and immediately correcting unwanted issues. It would be a mistake to blindly reach for, grab and pull out of the dirt everything that we see. Some of these items might be the very things you intentionally planted.

Performing basic root cause analyses on unwanted behaviors helps us to identify what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it from happening again. This act of preventing recurrence is another primary principle of human performance methodology.

Utilizing tools to determine culpability while providing a systematic framework by which to process the behavioral root cause allows the organization to promote fairness. It also ensures that the real reason that the error happened is determined. We never want to simply blame individuals and then move on, leaving a broken system or bad process in the wake, waiting for its next victim.

Reaping the Harvest
“The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye” provides a mental picture of harvest time. While this is no Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, it is music to our ears. This is why we have worked so hard. Now it is time to get ready to reap the harvest.

Organizational alignment is the last piece of the puzzle that provides the clear vision of our goals and values to every person on the team. Clearly stating our expectations and providing the mechanisms to achieve our stated goals remove confusion and frustration. A happy employee is an effective, error-free employee.

Through effective daily communication we can clearly state what it is we are trying to accomplish. Through paired observations we can demonstrate that it matters to the organization. What is expected gets inspected. Go out and look for the organizational alignment you have worked so hard to create. Just like our analogy, would you plant corn expecting grapefruit?

Three primary targets that organizations need to look for are accountability, conservative decision-making, and commitment to goals and values. These three fundamental elements are critical to organizational alignment. Think of this trilogy like 13-13-13 fertilizer. These three primary elements increase the yield.

Training the leadership team about the impact and types of accountability ensures that the organization understands what should and should not be done to improve overall alignment with goals and values. Challenging the organization to make conservative decisions creates a “think before do” mentality, leading to more effective outcomes. Gaining commitment to the goals and values rather than compliance with them invokes a sense of unified leadership. All of this shows the other team members that we mean what we say and we are not just talking about an aligned organization.

The end results we are looking for in the aligned organization are increased profits, reduced expenses due to fewer mistakes and less misalignment, lowered indemnity due to less risk-taking and a competitive advantage. The common enemy to all of these things starts with simple human error, leads to organizational weaknesses and results in complete misalignment of the organization. We can no longer afford to neglect this bitter weed.

About the Author: David W. Bowman is CEO of Knowledge Vine Inc. He has 25 years of industrial experience gained through his work in the petrochemical, nuclear power, fossil fuel generation, and utility transmission and distribution industries. Bowman is also a subject matter expert in human performance and led those efforts for Entergy Corp. for more than 12 years before founding Knowledge Vine. He holds a bachelor’s degree in safety engineering.

Safety Management, Leadership Development