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Using Positive Reinforcement to Transform an Organization

Jan 12, 2024 | 5m


Using Positive Reinforcement to Transform an Organization

About a decade ago, I was overseeing a contract manufacturing site as a part of my additional responsibilities. Together with a team of two, I took over the site, which had a history of underperforming. The site was struggling to deliver production volumes, and had failed quality audits miserably, leading to lots of scrutiny from the wider organization, pressure from leadership, and frustration for everyone involved.

Our initial hypothesis was that we needed to invest in training people and building their capabilities, while putting the right processes in place. For the first three to four months, we did just that, believing that this would translate to improved output and higher quality production. However, while there was some improvement, it wasn’t significant enough to the effort we were putting in. We were left even more frustrated. What was happening? Why aren’t we seeing results? Why aren’t people doing simple things right?

Upon taking a step back, I realized that people – including leaders at the site – were disengaged. People weren’t taking pride in what they were doing. They didn’t feel connected to the organization’s larger purpose. They didn’t feel a sense of belonging. This, I realized, was the key issue that needed to be addressed. Now, as the site wasn’t part of my organization, I couldn’t make changes to HR policy or compensation. However, I could start small and make little changes on the ground to begin with, to make people feel acknowledged for their contributions.

Very deliberately, when my team and I were on the floor – which was often – we would observe people at work. If we found someone carrying out a simple step correctly, we would immediately offer them a genuine compliment. For instance, I once saw someone fix a machine breakdown by himself. I told him he was doing a great job, thanked him for his work, and told him that due to his timely support, production would be back up and running soon. In doing so, I also helped him connect his task with the bigger picture.

In just about a month of doing this, people were coming up to us to discuss how they were approaching their work – what they were trying, and what was working. The culture was slowly but palpably transforming. We’d triggered the belief that if you did something right, you’d get acknowledged. Eventually, we formalized this into weekly and monthly Rewards & Recognition Programs, where everyone gathered to celebrate those who were delivering excellent work.

The result was a complete turnaround in the culture, one that I feel very good about. In just six months, production was on target, quality complaints decreased, and we scored an 80-90% improvement in the quality audit. So what are the lessons to be learnt from this transformation?

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