Why is personal change so hard? Consider the Endowment Effect

Humans are complicated.  While some of our base emotions and behaviors are easy to understand, there are times when we appear to make irrational decisions when faced with personal change.  For example, behavioral economists have identified a specific instance when we apparently place a very different value on something depending upon whether we own it or not.  Consider the following scenario.

Spersonal change, workplace, designuppose that a team performed an analysis on the layout of a work area.  The team concluded that a significant amount of waste of motion and waste of transportation would be removed if the work stations in the cell are re-arranged.  With a proposed new floor layout, each of the operators would walk shorter distances as they moved among the stations.  It would make it easier for them to accomplish their work each day. The location of the new work stations would be comparable in every way to the existing work stations – tools, space, lighting, climate, proximity to the work. This sounds like a positive outcome for everyone!

However, when the proposed plan is shared with the crew, it is met with surprising resistance by some of the operators.  This would seem to be an illogical decision.  These operators would rather walk further (and therefore work harder) than accept these minor personal changes to their work flow!  How can this be?

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Why do people violate rules? The concept of procedural drift

Red Light, Green Light

Years ago, I moved to a community in a different state for a new job.  While driving to work on the first day, I was involved in a number of near-miss automobile accidents.  Let me describe a risky driving behavior, which I quickly learned was “the way we drive around here”.

rulesDrivers approached an intersection with a traffic light.  The green light turned to yellow.  As expected, one or two cars entered the intersection while the light was still yellow. But what I observed next surprised me.  After the light turned red, the next three drivers continued through the intersection.  Remarkably, the cars in the opposing lanes (who had a green light) paused for 3 or 4 seconds for the red light violators to clear, then drove through the intersection.  When the light turned red for opposing lanes of traffic, the same behavior repeated.  The unspoken norm was that a “red light” meant that 3 more cars were allowed to pass through the intersection….the 4th car should stop. The amazing thing to me was that somehow everyone knew that this was the rule.  At first, I thought this was an isolated incident.  As I soon discovered, this happened at every intersection.

Now imagine someone who had never been to this town (me) approaching an intersection – and expecting that red means stop and green means go.  It took me four or five close encounters (of the wrong kind) at intersections with local drivers to figure out what was happening.  I quickly adapted to the local behavior.  By the time I arrived back home, I was Driver #3 going through a red light.  No consequences.  No tickets.  In fact, local police cars were following the same protocol!  (I learned later that 3 cars was indeed the limit.  If the police observed a 4th car driving through a red light, that person was always ticketed).

What was going on here?  How could every local person in this large community end up developing and accepting a norm that was clearly violating the standard?  One explanation could be the concept of entropy. The dictionary provides one definition as follows:

 en·tro·py   lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.

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Why can’t we get people to do simple things?

  • behaviorHave you ever wondered why some people don’t seem to be motivated to take action, even when what you are asking them to do is clearly the “right thing” ?
  • Have you noticed that some desirable habits are relatively easy to develop, while you struggle to make other habits a part of your routine?
  • Have you become frustrated when someone repeats a poor habit or behavior, in spite of a recent detailed coaching conversation?

Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University developed a behavior model that helps us to understand how to influence someone.  The Fogg Behavior Model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger.  When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing or insufficient.  His model is depicted in the graphic below.

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Fail often! Encourage continuous improvement with trial and error

 “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”  – Winston Churchill

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Greg was always naturally curious.

As a boy, he would tinker in his father’s workshop, often taking things apart just to see how they worked (much to the annoyance of Dad).  He would take various things from the shop and piece them together, hoping to make something new – something that was his.  In science class, students were paired up to make model rockets.  failEveryone was given the same materials and a solid rocket engine.  On “launch” day, the model rockets were ignited on the football field.  All the rockets hurtled skyward for several hundred feet before the fuel was exhausted and they floated back to earth.  Except for one.  Greg and his lab partner’s rocket whistled out of sight – never to be seen again.  When quizzed about what he did, Greg just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I just changed a few things that I thought could make it go higher.  I guess it worked.”

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Six thinking hats to wear on your continuous improvement journey

Perhaps you have found yourself in this situation.

Your team has been diligent in using a structured process to solve a vexing problem.  Most everyone seems to be engaged.  Quite a few ideas have been generated.  The team has used a criteria matrix or other sorting tool to narrow the choices to the best solution.  It seems clear what action is next.  The group needs to decide how to implement the improvement.

But wait….

There is an uneasiness in the air.  You can sense it.

  • You can see it in the way that Jennifer is tilting her head as the team’s proposal is summarized.
  • Matt prefaces his comment with, “I guess I’m OK with this solution, since everyone else seems to be.”
  • Susan wonders aloud if the crew will accept this new process design.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like all the team members are confident in the solution.  You find yourself wondering, “Didn’t we stack hands on this solution already? Why didn’t I hear about these concerns earlier?  What did I miss?”

At a time like this, it might be helpful to put on a hat.  Or better yet, six hats.

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Why didn’t anyone speak up? How silence often results in failure.

“Let’s reach a consensus on what we should do next.”

All of us have heard this phrase – or something similar – from a group or team leader.  And what’s not to like about this approach?  After all, collaboration and cooperation are essential for a team to be effective.  Unfortunately, there are times when a group can have an apparent consensus view and later regret the outcome of their collective decision. In 1974, Dr. Jerry Harvey, a professor of management science at George Washington University, introduced the term Abilene Paradox to explain this group behavior.speak up

The Abilene Paradox involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s.  As a result, no objections are raised.  Some common phrases linked to the Abilene Paradox are to not “rock the boat” or to “go along to get along.”

This phenomenon is explained by theories of social conformity and influence, which suggest people are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of a group. According to Harvey, the phenomenon may occur when people experience action-anxiety.  People are concerned that the group could express negative attitudes towards them if they do not go along.

The name of this group behavior is derived from an incident that Harvey recounts in his article published in Organizational Dynamics.  A summary of the story is given below.

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