Habits are Critical to Perpetuating Change

Tom Moriarty
Tags: continuous improvement, talent management

Habits are Critical to Perpetuating Change

Change is often required to increase business performance. Whether this change is necessitated by inside growth or outside threats, leaders must assess the circumstances and determine which opportunities are most important and define their responses accordingly.

Defining the response is done by applying various analysis tools, such as:

Once the appropriate response is defined, a decision must be made to authorize it.

Once the change is authorized, leaders must develop a thorough guide for the change, whether it be a modification to an existing guide or the creation of an entirely new guide. Either way, the guide shouldn’t contain any ambiguities, gaps or overlaps to ensure team members know what activities or behaviors they will be responsible for carrying out. Leaders must also help team members shift to this new or modified guide by providing the appropriate assets, training and coaching.

Defining and enabling the new guidance is the easy part. The hard part is getting the changes to become a common practice that perpetuates the changes. Often, changes are implemented, but they don’t stick. To overcome this and experience better long-term results, leaders need to understand how the human brain works.


A set of rules and standards shared by members of an organization, which, when acted upon by the members, produce behaviors that fall within a range that the organization considers proper and acceptable.
Source: reliableplant.com

Ultimately, leaders want to establish the right culture; to achieve this, we need our teams to have the right habits. Habits are formed when a behavior is performed often enough to shift the connection between two parts of our brains. Leaders must define and guide the right behaviors to form appropriate habits.

For leaders to successfully define and guide the right behaviors, they need two things:

Accountability provides direction and requirements. Direction includes the mission, vision, values and objectives of the facility. Requirements include assessing, defining, authorizing and implementing guides and enabling the right behaviors. While leadership is responsible for these two factors, junior members must also be accountable for executing current guidance with critical assets.

Leadership capabilities are needed to guide behavior. A member can be accountable for a task, but they must also be able to execute it properly. The elements of leadership capability include the leader, leadership roles, attributes, skills, influence, goal setting and sources of power.

The Human Brain

Our brains are impressive. In relation to body size, humans have the biggest brain of any animal. The human body consumes about 2,000 calories a day, and about 25% of that energy is used by our brains.

More than 80% of the calories consumed by our brains are used by our cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is where thoughts are processed, and it’s the hardest-working part of our brains. To free up space in the cerebral cortex, our brains have developed a method for performing routine tasks while consuming very little energy. This portion of the brain that handles this process is called the basal ganglia.

The basal ganglia control what is referred to as “habit cycles.” Habit cycles consist of a cue, routine and reward. The cue is an initiating trigger, the routine is the behaviors that constitute the habit, and the reward is what is achieved when the habit routine is completed successfully.

When learning new information, our senses pick up data and store it in our short-term memory. However, short-term memory is volatile — information learned is easily lost. This is because the initial synapse connections between neurons are weak. To strengthen these connections, we must repeat the thoughts or patterns associated with the related information. The more we exercise the neuron connections, the stronger they become, and with enough exercise, short-term memories can be converted to long-term memories.

Recurring behaviors depend on long-term memories. With enough repetition, the brain eventually converts long-term memories into habit cycles, where it is passed off to the basal ganglia to be managed.

For example, let’s say you start a new job. You start driving back and forth from work for months, driving the same route, making the same turns at the same time every day. While you’re driving home from work one day, your cerebral cortex takes over and starts actively working through other problems — getting your kids to baseball practice, deciding what to eat for dinner, preparing for your weekend fishing trip, etc. During this process, you quit thinking about your hands and feet operating the vehicle, yet you still stop, start and turn without thinking. The result is you arriving home, parking within three inches of where you left that morning, without ever having to think about it. This is your basal ganglia performing its habit cycle job properly.

When habits form, they are permanently stored in your basal ganglia. While habits can’t ever be erased, even with the introduction of new habits, people can revert to old habits if they perceive a greater reward or fewer consequences than what is offered by a new habit.

With an understanding of the key features of our brains, we can now look at what is needed for changes to be initiated and perpetuated.

Creating The Right Culture

As mentioned earlier, culture is a set of rules or standards that produce a desired behavior. Figure 1 shows a diagram that summarizes how to create the right culture. To create the right culture, we need to create the right behaviors. To do this, we must define what the right behaviors are and actively work to enable them. Then, leaders must guide the right behaviors until a consistent result is achieved. When these behaviors are repeated enough, we develop the right habits, which ultimately help us create the right culture.

Figure 1

The easiest part is defining and enabling the right behaviors. This is done by:

  1. Identify best-practice
  2. Assess current behaviors
  3. Identify gaps between best-practice and current behaviors
  4. Draft flow charts
  5. Draft RASI tables
  6. Create a guidance document
  7. Provide resources and training
  8. Implement

The difficult part is achieving consistent behaviors that are aligned with the new guide and driving those behaviors to become common practice, which creates habits. This is done by guiding the right behaviors.

Guiding the right behaviors requires productive leadership, which revolves around accountability and leadership capability (figure 2). Accountability is needed by both senior and junior leaders at each level of the organization.

Figure 2

Figure 3 is the Organizational Reliability Model™. It describes the accountabilities at each leadership level. The senior leader is accountable for assessing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). They must define responses to their SWOT findings by authorizing new or modified guides and effectively implementing the changes. Implementing the changes involves providing guidance with no ambiguities, gaps or overlaps and providing the necessary assets, training and coaching to enable the right behaviors.

Figure 3

The junior leadership is accountable for executing these guides with the current assets. They are also responsible for notifying senior leaders when discrepancies interfere with executing the right behaviors.

Leadership capabilities are defined by the Productive Leadership Model™ as shown in figure 4. The model states that direction and requirements should be clearly defined. Direction refers to the organization’s mission, vision, values and objectives. Requirements are the guides and assets. The elements of the Productive Leadership Model™ include:

Figure 4

Guiding The Right Behaviors

For a leader to consistently achieve the right behaviors, they must be accountable and have leadership capabilities that positively affect the behaviors of their team members. This means they need to be in a coaching leadership role, as opposed to just a manager or technician role.

To be a great leader, they have to be consistent, attentive, respectful, motivating and assertive. They must also be good time managers and communicators, be empowering, be able to solve conflicts and be good at both giving and receiving feedback.

To gain trust and respect, leaders must use their power wisely. As trust and respect grow, leaders can use their power to influence the proper behavior, especially in situations where a team member is uncooperative or when a task is undesirable.

With the background of accountability and leadership capability in place, the most practical aspect of guiding performance is the use of positive and corrective feedback. While corrective feedback is a common tool used, positive feedback is often underutilized. Sometimes, leaders can think that when a team member performs the right behaviors, no further action is needed. However, there is great value in people knowing that you see them doing things the right way. Positive reinforcement encourages them to do more of these right behaviors.

Corrective feedback is appropriate when behaviors are not consistent with the right behaviors. Using the three-step corrective feedback method, reduces leader stress and anxiety while providing a way to communicate the necessary information to the team member. The three steps are:

  1. Clearly describe the specific behavior that is noteworthy. Example: “The work orders you’ve been closing out have been missing parts usage data.”
  2. Tell the person how you feel about the behavior. Example: “Because of this, I don’t feel confident in the data we have on parts usage.”
  3. Describe the effect this behavior has on the team or larger organization. Example: “Without that data, the plant manager will not approve of purchasing more critical inventory parts.”

It’s important to give corrective feedback in a private setting. Respect the person by not embarrassing them in front of their peers or others. Find a quiet location where others can’t see or hear your conversation.

As mentioned, it’s important to provide positive feedback as well. It may or may not be important to provide positive feedback in a private setting. Most people appreciate being told they’re doing a great job. However, some people find it embarrassing. It’s important to know your team members so that you give them positive feedback in a setting and manner that they appreciate. The same three-step method can be used for positive feedback:

  1. Clearly describe the specific behavior that is noteworthy. Example: “The work orders you’ve been closing out have been really good at identifying parts usage data.”
  2. Tell the person how you feel about the behavior. Example: “Because of this, I feel confident in the data we have on parts usage.”
  3. Describe the effect this behavior has on the team or larger organization. Example: “With that data, the plant manager is more likely to approve the purchasing of more critical inventory parts.”

If the leader is consistent with their expectations, they are more likely to get their team to perform the right behaviors. Leaders must stay attentive and watch for positive and non-conforming behaviors. They must then be assertive in providing positive or corrective feedback in a timely manner.

Final Thoughts

So many initiatives get implemented, but many fail to achieve the results that were envisioned. Most initiatives tend to fall back over time. The root causes include poor accountability and inadequate leadership capabilities. Accountability should be across each level of the organization. The senior person at each level is accountable for modifying or creating and enabling new direction and guidance. The junior person is accountable for executing current guides with the current assets available and notifying the senior person when there are discrepancies.

Leadership capability should be a focus of every organization. Recent surveys have shown that nearly 50% of supervisors and managers had inadequate leadership training. Inadequate leadership training was defined by measuring motivation levels compared with the frequency of leadership training. Motivation levels were higher as the frequency of leadership training increased. On average, leadership training should be provided every two to three years.

Leadership training should encompass each of the elements of the Productive Leadership Model™. Organizations don’t necessarily need to use the specific terminology that I’ve proposed in my book, but the training should encompass the same topics, and it should be consistent. Consistency is the key to creating and consistently delivering the right behaviors that lead to successful organizations.