Feedback: It’s all it cracked up to be!

A lot has been said on the topic of feedback. Google will give you about 2,070,000,000 results in 0.82 seconds. There are different kinds and different definitions… my interest is in the realm of workplace performance which is defined as “the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source; also :  the information so transmitted.” (Thanks Merriam-Webster)

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I have been seeing more and more of the traffic signs that provide feedback on your actual speed popping up as of late and it has definitely affected MY behaviour every time I come into my sleepy little town. When approaching these 40 km/h zones, I now set my cruise control at 42 and breeze by the local constabulary with an ear to ear smile!

sid-roadside-speed-warning-sign-M23712On a recent visit to British Columbia, I saw more of these signs, with a little twist. Instead of just the hard data (your speed), a positive or negative reinforcing stimulus was also included in the form of a happy or sad face, similar to the image to the left.  Psychologists call this “operant conditioning” and these signs are an effective application of feedback and reinforcement. This video of my mom driving into Vancouver is a great example of the application and a successful outcome!

Reflecting on my own experience with these signs, I realized that the sign positioned by our elementary school on the north side of town, has had the desired effect while the ones on the east and west sides of town, haven’t. Initially, when the eastern and western signs went up, I complied. Now I am less likely to slow down as much as I do for the sign at the school. That got me wondering why. No kids. Less hazard??

There is (thankfully) more scientific data than a video of my mom and my own reflections. If you are so inclined, I have provided some references below (Ebrahim, Z. & Nikraz, H., 2013 and Shinar, D., 2017) that show an overall positive effect in the reduction of speeding and accidents in areas that used digital signs instead of standard signs. There are many other studies (Chhokar, 1983; Goldhacker et al., 2014; Pritchard et al., 2012; Park et al., 2011) that report the positive effects of feedback on performance.

A Transportation Alberta guideline for the placement of these signs notes that “permanent installations may lead to a proliferation of Driver Feedback Signs which could lessen the visual impact of the signs when they are needed most” and recommends that the signs be used in one location for no more than 30 days. This explains my declining compliance with some of the signs. All the signs in my town appear to be permanent and the two not situated by a school zone are losing their impact on me. I am sure this article will make it top of mind again for awhile! I suspect that the combination of the sign at the school coupled with the fact that the police are often parked on a side street contributes to me slowing down there more often.

Long story short, these signs got me thinking about feedback and how important it is in the workplace and any system. In the most basic sense, when a system output is measured, the result (positive or negative) can be fed back into the system to make adjustments as required to improve performance.

BLOCK DIAGRAM

The measurement and change aspects often become the weak spots in the system, as determining what to measure isn’t always easy and, as M.W. Shelley said in Frankenstein, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

When we think about performance in the workplace, it is helpful to look at it from different perspectives. I use the four listed below (Kaufman, 2006; Addison, Haig & Kearney, 2009):

  1. World (or societal impact from organizational outputs);
  2. Workplace (the organization as a whole);
  3. Work (processes and practice level); and
  4. Worker (teams and individuals).

How we measure outputs and apply changes to the system, based on the feedback received, will obviously be different depending on the perspective, the type of output and the change(s) required.

The frequency of feedback provided will also change depending on the factors involved. In an automated system such as a thermostat connected to a furnace, the frequency is almost continuous while feedback on employee performance should definitely not be continuous.

When I started out in the military, we had an annual performance feedback session which I felt wasn’t enough. Over time that changed to quarterly, which I also felt wasn’t always enough. When I was the Chief Instructor of Acoustics, our students got feedback at least weekly and more often if they had exams or had committed some horrible sin like letting their hair get too long or putting two creases in the sleeve of their shirt! For a poor performer it could be relentless. My instructors had a feedback session on a monthly basis which seemed about right.

Chhokar (1983) notes that “more [feedback] may not always be better” and finds that “the existence of some optimum frequency of feedback (not necessarily, the most frequent)” would result in a desirable level of performance. So how do you find that sweet spot? Is it the same for every performer? Is all feedback effective feedback?

Brethower (2006) cautions that “data dumps are not feedback” and “Intelligent value-adding performance is possible only with adequate feedback; defective feedback yields defective performance, always” (pg. 126). There are lots of ideas on how often feedback is required. I can’t find a study that says “X is the optimum frequency” likely because there isn’t one.

Of course, organizations must establish a minimum to ensure that feedback is being provided. Much like trying to address every individuals learning style when designing training, creating an individualized feedback system for every employee would be impossible.

The key is (1) appropriate feedback can increase performance, (2) too much won’t have that same positive effect and (3) when you are the person providing the feedback, asking your employee how much is enough could help you find that sweet spot!

References

Addison, R., Haig, C., & Kearney, L. (2009). Performance architecture. The art and science of improving organizations. San Francisco, CA: Pfieffer

Brethower, D. M. (2006). Systemic issues. In Pershing, J.A. (Ed) Handbook of human performance technology: Principles practices potential. (pp. 111-137). San Francisco: Pfieffer.

Chhokar, J. S. “The Effect of Feedback Frequency on Performance in Applied Behavior Analysis: a Field Study.” (1983). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 3920.
http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_disstheses/3920 

Ebrahim, Z. & Nikraz, H. (2013). Before and after studies to reduce the gap between road users and authorities. In Urban transport XIX, Volume 130 of WIT transactions on the built environment. WIT Press.

Goldhacker, M., Rosengarth, K., Plank, T., & Greenlee, M. W. (2014). The effect of feedback on performance and brain activation during perceptual learning. Vision Research, 99, 10, 99-110.

Kaufman, R. (2006). Change, Choices, and Consequences: A Guide to Mega Thinking and Planning. Amherst, MA. HRD Press Inc.

Park, J. H., Son, J. Y., Kim, S., & May, W. (2011). Effect of feedback from standardized patients on medical students’ performance and perceptions of the neurological examination. Medical Teacher, 33, 12, 1005-1010.

Pritchard, R. D. D., Weaver, S. J. J., & Ashwood, E. (2012). Evidence-Based Productivity Improvement: A Practical Guide to the Productivity Measurement and Enhancement System (ProMES). Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.

Shinar, D. (2017). Traffic safety and human behavior. Emerald Group Publishing

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Where is the Performance Issue?

An old shipmate of mine shared this video on Facebook due to the “wow factor.” So after I watched it – my first thought was “boy are those two in troouubblle!” Then I caught myself. That’s my OLD thinking. Take 90 seconds and watch the video (just click the image) and then lets consider a different way of viewing the issue!

 Capturehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2jAG58dnmg

The firefighters were fortunate that the car didn’t go through the guardrail or hit something else (car, house, person) and create even more damage!

As I alluded to above, the old Navy Chief and Father in me immediately thought “what were they thinking? Why didn’t they secure the scene first??” It’s hard to re-wire your brain to approach everything in a systematic fashion, but I keep trying!

When I am being analytical (vice emotional) I generally start with Chevalier’s (2003) Updated Behavior Engineering Model in Table 1 below to consider a problem.

Without having access to the performers or their organization it is still reasonable to look at the model below and consider environmental and individual factors to start looking at. This analysis often leads to other interesting things!

As noted in Expectations of the Workforce… 75-80 percent of the factors that influence performance are environmentally rather than individually based. So that is where we start and after watching the video I wondered what the National Fire Protection Association standards say about this type of situation. Given the extensive list of NFPA standards, I think I would need some help from a subject matter expert to narrow it down! That covers the Environment: Information column.

If there is a standard, next up is to check and see if it has been translated into the fire department’s procedures and there are directions to the firefighters to secure a burning vehicle before putting out the fire. Let’s assume that so far we are all good and the standards and procedures are in place.

BEM

Table 1: The Updated BEM (Chevalier, 2003). Reprinted with Permission

Now I would be asking to see the truck and have one of the firefighters show me where the equipment is that could be used to secure that car. There should be a few different options. Two that spring to mind are steel chocks or a steel cable with a “come-along” that could be attached to the truck and the car. Maybe attaching a burning car to a fire truck is bad juju… I’m not sure – but the experts would be quick to tell me if I am thinking crazy!

That takes care of the Environment: Resources column. If we are still ticking the YES Box at this point and have discovered nothing else in the workers environment, it is time to start looking at the firefighters.

The first place to look is at the training program. If the training program has the required procedure included, then we want to see if the firefighters on scene actually received that training. That is the Individual: Knowledge/Skills column. Really – this is still an organizational factor as it is up to the organization to provide the training and assign qualified people to work in certain positions. If this is all still correct – it might be time for someone to put the “Chief” hat on and kick some heiny!

Okay – not really. It has also been proven that generally – heiny kicking isn’t helpful. At this point we need to look at the capacity and motives of the individuals involved.

It is more than likely (75-80% chance?) that there is an information or resource issue at the root of this video. Rectifying that would probably lead to some changes to standards, policies, procedures, equipment fit on the trucks and maybe even some training.

Learning Organizations have a process for capturing these types of scenarios so that they don’t happen again… sounds like a great topic for down the road!

References

Chevalier, R. (2003). Updating the behavior engineering model. Performance Improvement, 42(5). Silver Spring, MD: International Society for Performance Improvement.

Expectations of the Workforce…

Expectations of the Workforce or “What do you really want me to do!?”

Have you ever started a new job or moved into a new position and thought “I don’t have a clue what I am supposed to be doing!?” How about the frazzled manager who gets the new hire and says “Here’s your desk… don’t worry – you’ll pick it up as you go.”

More than once in my career I have been transferred into a position where my “job Capture
description” consisted of a file folder full of printed e-mails, post-it notes and hand scratches on the back of a beer coaster. Frustrating when there are Human Resource (HR) policies and procedures that clearly outline requirements for job descriptions and performance reviews leading up to the annual performance assessment.

After becoming exposed to Performance Improvement and understanding the importance of the job description for setting expectations and the performance reviews as a feedback loop – in each successive position where I wasn’t provided a job description – I wrote my own – and presented it to my supervisor and asked “Is that what you want me to do?” It worked as a way to at least start a dialogue about expectations.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
~Ken Blanchard

In my most recent position where I had to manage others, I had one fella who had been bounced from job to job in the unit and didn’t seem to be getting a fair shake. When I took up the job, we sat down and reviewed my first attempt at his job description and made some tweaks, added some of his professional aspirations and away we went. We sat down twice in the year reviewing his progress, as well as at other intervals when more immediate feedback was needed. At the end of the year, I was able to base his performance assessment on all this and substantiate his higher than average rating amongst his peers. Easy when you use the system as it was designed.

A lot of people seemed to have “written off” this young man as needing too much care and supervision. I wondered – as we often do in our field – is it the performer or the work environment (which is the responsibility of management)?

Back in 2012, Guy Wallace (another one of my mentors and friends) and I wrote an article for eLearn Magazine that attempted to answer the question:

Where did the statement “80% of performance gaps are caused by other than Knowledge/skill deficits” come from?

To make a long story short, there was a consensus amongst the research and experts in the field that around 75-80 percent of the factors that influence performance are environmentally rather than individually based.

Now there are many (many many) environmental factors that can negatively impact performance. Some we can influence, some we can’t. In this case, simply setting clear expectations and providing regular feedback to show him how he was progressing created a real turn around.

One of the foundational models in Performance Improvement is Tom Gilbert’s Behaviour Engineering Model. Gilbert helps us see performance from both environmental and individual perspectives. A good topic to delve into next…