We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Procedure!

Categories: BMT Courses, Employee EngagementAuthor:

Near the end of the courses we teach in organizations we encourage the attendees to find and complete a small performance improvement project.  Generally, people are pretty happy to have an opportunity to improve some aspect of their work environment and take this assignment on with enthusiasm.  We have seen some absolutely wonderful, high impact projects come from this.  The course attendees feel reinforced by their success as well as the encouragement they receive from their peers and bosses.  In other words, we have at least temporarily created a work environment where people want to do projects that add value to the workplace.

Yet, it never fails that senior leaders, hoping to maintain this momentum, decide that the best course of action is to create a standard procedure for doing projects.  Because nothing says, “let’s give this all we can!” like an 8-page procedure.

To illustrate why this won’t work, let me provide an example from one of our client sites.  A woman who recently took my course decided her project would be reducing unnecessary and redundant paperwork and was going through each set of paperwork on the site and creating a leaner, and more useful solution.  She had eliminated a lot of stuff already, saving them time and money, and she was everyone’s hero for doing so.  After all, no one wants to enter in the same expense three times.  One of the site leaders said that they had never seen her so motivated.  I would hate to see that spark of enthusiasm squashed by trying to make her fit what she was doing to step-by-step a procedure.

Procedures don’t motivate people, consequences do.

They didn’t need a procedure, they needed champions who would continue to encourage and support their efforts.  They needed a little time each week to work on making improvements.  They needed to create a community of people at their workplace who were highly committed to behavioral science and continued to talk and learn about it after I left.

A lot of times, people say, “that sounds too hard, wouldn’t a procedure be easier”.  It is hard to sustain BMT or any large-scale initiative, but it’s the only way to create a lasting shift in the culture of your organization.  Writing a procedure is easier, and it is also easy to file it away and never look at it again.

It’s what your people do and say everyday that matters, no matter what is written in your procedures.

6 Responses to We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Procedure!

  1. David Wiss says:

    Nicole you said “Procedures don’t motivate people, consequences do.” and that got me to thinking. So, I have dumb question to ask. Don’t we need procedures that are balanced with expected consequence to help us remember what we did to get that result? I think motivation is about energy and direction, which are strong reasons for why we engage in certain behaviors. A procedure is an antecedent that is also designed to promote a behavior that will produce a expected consequence or result. If the procedure is in balance with the expected consequence then we should observe a stable happy environment. Right?

    • Nicole says:

      David, you are on the right track. Antecedents that are linked to consequences are going to be more effective.

      One of the challenges with creating procedures is that rules add threats to the environment – do this or else. So, we only want to create rules when we are willing to enforce them and when they are necessary to enforce. Most people find choice and flexibility reinforcing in most situations so we don’t want to remove that reinforcer if it isn’t necessary to do so.

      • Michael Sofis says:

        I find that as a student in OBM, rules (and the behaviors that follow) can frequently have unintended consequences.

        When the procedures are created without thought of the consequences that will maintain it’s execution, typically things fall apart.

        What I don’t understand is it sounds all well and good for us to say this but why do the majority of U.S. businesses struggle to not micromanage and make every last desirable outcome filled with procedures?

        What consequence or consequences cause this behavior for an organizational standpoint?

        • Nicole says:

          Good question, Michael! I think it stems from a lack of understand what drives behavior. In addition, antecedents are faster and easier in the short term than having to identify and apply the appropriate consequences.

  2. Sean Blazo says:

    Nicole – I have worked in the highly-regulated industry of Medical Devices for 3 years now. Work Procedures are absolutely mandatory in this industry as they serve to maintain adherence to FDA regulations. Our internal procedures (based on external FDA and ISO standards) are the laws around here, upon which all of our work efforts shall fall in line with.
    A good procedure around here adds clarity to otherwise muddy waters. When a procedure is not serving its function as intended, it is “rev’d up” in attempt to sort out the kinks.

    What about consequences integrated into procedures? Consequences are something I always keep in mind when process-mapping changes to existing processes or when developing new business processes & process flow diagrams. I have found procededuralizing consequences, in general, to be extremely effective (based on objective data) when implemented properly.

    I have some process flow charts I’ve helped develop which I’d like to share, however, I’ll need to request permission from my company due to confidentiality agreements.

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks for your comments, Sean. I agree, there is a time and place for procedures and when written well, they can add a lot of value. For example, I like that doctors and pilots use procedures. I like your idea of including consequences in the procedure as well.

      However, I’d argue that procedures are overused and there are time when using them does not make sense. For example:

      1) Procedures should not be created when they aren’t necessary: Every time you create a rule/procedural step, a negative reinforcement condition is created – do this or else. Now, you can try to overpower that with positive consequences but it still exists. So, I’d argue that we shouldn’t write procedures unless they are really necessary or we risk adding too much negative reinforcement into the work environment.

      2) Procedures are not an effective way to change a culture: Culture is made up of behaviors people engage in every day – it’s the way we do things around here. There are too many behaviors to proceduralize in a culture. In addition, culture change needs to happen more organically in order to feel real and stick. It can’t be forced through a procedure, the new behaviors have to be naturally reinforced in the environment.


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