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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More on Metrics

On the weekends, my wife and I start the day by watching CBC’s The National evening news show. The February 12th edition had a segment called The Next: Server Farms (5:03) which provides a glimpse into the power consumption requirements of the Internet.

One statement caught my attention. The reporter said around minute 2:15

“…most people who run corporate data centers aren’t responsible for how much energy their IT systems use. They’re judged on reliability and speed.”

As noted in Mentors, Managers and Metrics, these are great metrics, but again they don’t tell the whole story! Different metrics are needed to measure the work going on within the system itself! So a learning moment for me… electrical consumption for the servers and cooling are an important measure of efficiency in this scenario.

In this story it appears that the biggies like Facebook are learning these lessons already, realizing that reduced energy consumption means big savings. It is the small to medium sized companies that have may have more to gain by reducing – or better managing the use of their idle servers. Food for thought for all my IT friends and colleagues.

When we apply Performance Improvement methods to a problem in the workplace, we try our best to be systemic and systematic in our approach. To do that, we need to “see” the problem (or opportunity) from many different angles and levels inside and outside of the organization. This morning I learned another perspective… and I hadn’t even planned on writing anything!

One more thought popped up while in the shower (where I do my best thinking and some average singing) – I wonder if an environmental impact assessment has been done for the barge server farm in the story… to determine the effects of warming the water around it to cool the servers. An outside of the organization perspective.

Okay – NOW I am off to hockey. Happy Saturday everyone!