Six Boxes Performance Thinking Welcome to the Six Boxes RSS feed. Mon, 27 Feb 2017 10:09:20 PST en-us <![CDATA[ For ISPI History Buffs ]]> At an ISPI conference in San Francisco some years ago, our colleague Guy Wallace did another round of interviews for his legacy series exploring the foundations and history of ISPI. He interviewed Carl and asked him about his own part of that history, while pulling out anecdotes and stories of some of the more interesting personalities who originated this wonderful technology on which we base our work. Watch it here.


<![CDATA[ Unpacking the Performance Chain: The Essence of the Six Boxes Approach ]]> In addition to the simplicity and plain language of the Six Boxes® Model itself, the visual and conceptual simplicity of the Performance Chain provides a foundation for "performance thinking" in the overall Six Boxes Approach. These are the graphic, linguistic and conceptual elements that make the approach simple to understand and describe.  They also, of course, contain far more complexity in depth than is obvious at the outset. 

In the process of trying to teach a wide diversity of people to understand and apply Six Boxes "performance thinking," we've begun to recognize more clearly that people enter the process with different backgrounds.  What is easy for one person (e.g., identifying and describing work outputs or  behavior) might be difficult for another, and vice versa. This recognition is challenging us to dig more deeply into our own experience and to create better tools and to document a wider and deeper collection of examples. 

In the meantime, as we continue to learn more with our emerging community of practice, it's important to remember that the essence of this approach is unpacking and then reassembling the performance chain –- sometimes many performance chains –- to enable people to more productively and more happily produce the results their organizations need.

At the heart of performance thinking is the ability to look at a situation that involves human performance and to fairly quickly identify what people need to produce (outputs) in order to deliver the value (organizational results) they or their organizations seek; to investigate and clarify the behavior needed to produce those valuable work outputs; and finally to understand, reconfigure and balance behavior influences based on an understanding of the Six Boxes Model.

As our old friend and colleague, Dr. Kent Johnson, pointed out some time ago, this is not as easy nor as linear a process as it seems. Consequently, we must continue to coach people through the process of applying this approach to particular situations until performance thinking becomes a more fluent part of each user's repertoire.

Throughout the learning process it it can be helpful for everyone to remember, when facing a particular performance challenge or project, that it's all about understanding and  managing the performance chain. Just keep coming back to that.  As we continue to gain more experience and perspective with every application, analysis, or informal insight, we expand our understanding and deepen our ability to engage in performance thinking.

I, for one, can say that with every novel environment or application I encounter there are challenges and new learning opportunities.  As someone who has been using this approach for nearly 30 years, I can confirm that the learning never stops.  Mastering the Six Boxes Approach is more about learning a logic than following a fixed set of procedures –- the logic of unpacking the performance chain and of arranging behavior influences to optimize performance.  As we encounter more situations, we're able to generalize in ways that will allow us to attack new challenges more easily.  That generalization always comes back to the simplicity of the performance chain, and how it manifests in all kinds of human performance.

Carl Binder

<![CDATA[ Performance Improvement as Design Engineering ]]> I continue to come back to a theme that I and Dr. Donald Tosti addressed in a session at the annual conference of ISPI a few years ago, the difference between a problem-solving orientation to performance improvement and what we called a design engineering approach. Don was an informal mentor of mine, and an inspiration for decades, in many different ways. In this instance we found that we are in "violent agreement" and have continued the dialog over time.  Don says that before the quality movement, performance improvement wasn't so focused on finding the cause of problems, but rather it was about getting the best possible performance as efficiently as possible. Today it seems more tilted toward problem-solving.

At The Performance Thinking Network we have a bias for design engineering -- what I often describe as optimization or tuning and balancing of performance systems.  The Performance Chain and the Six Boxes Model are very helpful in this way because they lay out visually and conceptually the elements that need to be tuned and balanced.

First, we try to be sure we're focusing on valuable work outputs (what Tom Gilbert called accomplishments), to identify the ones that are not being produced or could be produced better.  We judge them as valuable to the extent that they contribute to business results.  Our initial focus on outputs, rather than on behavior or skills and knowledge, helps us zero in pretty quickly on the really important targets.

Then, when we figure out what people need to DO to produce the desired work outputs (that is, when we identify required behavior), we try to be sure that all the categories represented by the Six Boxes Model are optimized for impact, synergy, and cost-effectiveness.  There are almost always ways to strengthen how expectations are set and feedback is provided.  Often there are factors in box 2 -- tools and resources -- that can be improved, with processes, job redesigns, performance support, access to coaches, and so on.  And there is virtually never a case where we can't do a better job with personal delivery of recognition by managers and supervisors, and even by peers, for excellent performance -- box 3 -- and aligning consequences with expectations.   If we do all these things well, then if there are needed skills and knowledge (box 4), we can generally provide them in a cost-effective way as long as we avoid knee-jerk training. And so on.

This is how we approach performance:  If there is performance of value (defined by its valuable work outputs), then we do our best to be sure all cylinders are hitting, all six boxes are working to optimize the behavior needed to produce the outputs.

The contrasting approach is what I see over and over again in client organizations and among some of our most sophisticated colleagues, a big focus on finding the "problem" and identifying the "root cause" and then  fixing it.  But as anyone can see who has stood back and taken a look at performance through a systems-thinking lens such as The Six Boxes Model, there are almost ALWAYS multiple opportunities for improvement, not just one hole in the dike needing to be plugged.  If we  were just trying to resuscitate broken systems rather than optimizing and improving, we'd be working awfully hard for marginal results. The goal is to maximize ROI for our investments in people, and just plugging holes will seldom accomplish that.

I don't have anything against root cause analysis when we're trying to improve defects in quality processes, or when something is just plain broken. But in many cases, an awful lot of paper and hours of interviews and investigation go to waste, in my opinion, when the opportunities for improvement are quite clear if we just look at the variables needed to optimize human performance. We know we need to have operative elements in all six boxes of the model. Our approach, which we think is often quicker and more direct, is simply to do what we can cost-effectively to improve those factors -- those behavior influences -- to optimize, tune, and balance the overall system.

Any thoughts?

Carl Binder, CPT

<![CDATA[ 8 Ways to Increase Employee Engagement ]]> We believe that if you clearly connect the day-to-day activities of people to the goals the organization needs to achieve through their valuable work outputs, and then align and balance all the factors that influence their ability to perform, you will fully engage your employees. But let’s drop down to the working level beyond theory for a moment (even though we’ve proven the theory with clients!). Assuming that you know about the Performance Chain and the Six Boxes Model, here are eight steps that will help you strengthen employee engagement.

  1. Define expectations (Box 1) for employees at 3 levels: Micro (immediate job requirements), Macro (how their jobs contribute to company mission), and Mega (how company contributes to society). This creates multiple levels of context and connects everyone through purpose.

  2. Take a snapshot of your feedback frequency (Box 1) and quality. Count how often feedback is provided, in what form, and the ratio of positive to negative. The result will tell you what to change and how.

  3. Evaluate and improve your employees’ access to tools and resources (Box 2). When we feel that we have what we need to do our job (and actually DO), and that someone is helping us get there, we feel empowered to execute.

  4. Reward the behavior you want with positive consequences that are really important or desirable to the employee (Box 3 & 6).  Some people want public recognition and awards, some want money, some want their team noticed, and some just want eye contact and a pat on the back. When we feel like our manager understands our style, we feel listened to and appreciated.

  5. Make sure that employees have career path options that match their interests and talents (Box 5 & 6). Use the Six Boxes to design development plans preparing employees for their next roles on the path.

  6. Work with each employee to identify what they deliver in outputs to their various “customers” (The Performance Chain). This will clarify job expectations and help them ask for what they need to do their jobs better.

  7. Ask employees directly what they think they're good at doing and what they prefer to do (Boxes 5 and 6). Does this match the job requirements? Can the job be “customized” to align it better to the employee’s strengths? Does the employee feel valued for what they contribute? Consider how you can alter the expected outputs and how you support the employee to ensure they feel that what they’re good at is aligned with what the company needs from them.

  8. Refer to the Six Boxes Model and focus on the top row. Are you doing everything you can to support optimum performance? We’d bet you’ll find at least one significant opportunity to create an environment that will increase your employee’s engagement and job satisfaction.
<![CDATA[ The Checklist Manifesto ]]> The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande, has had a much greater impact than simply on the field of clinical medicine, its birthplace.  As was noted by one of its reviewers when the book first came out in 2009, it represents a potential "game changer." That is, job aids offer the potential for improving performance with extreme cost-effectiveness, in this case literally saving lives.

The author, an incredibly accomplished medical doctor, writer and MacArthur Fellow, points out that in our time it is impossible for anyone to know everything they need to perform their best in complex jobs and activities of daily life. He says that we suffer from increasing information overload, complexity and accompanying errors and problems of execution.  His field, medical practice, is particularly susceptible to this problem because lives are at stake.

The book introduces the idea that checklists, or what we call job aids in the performance improvement field, offer the potential for clearly documenting and guiding performance in both simple and complex tasks, including those in the fast-paced, high stakes world of patient care.  Studies show that they can dramatically improve medical safety and patient outcomes.  However, we tend to resist use of such job aids, for many reasons summarized by the author, including the belief that we can and should know everything (Master of the Universe mentality), that checklists oversimplify complex tasks, and that they are too rigid and discourage creativity and broader awareness.

Surveys show that many medical professionals resist the idea of using checklists to guide their performance, although 93% of those surveyed say that if they were the patient, they would want their medical professionals to use checklists to ensure best practices treatment.  There is this conflict between our obvious need to support our own performance with clear, specific tools and information resources, and our pride of knowing – all the ways that we resist actually using job aids.

In the context of The Six Boxes Model, this is known as a "box 2" issue because it involves "tools and resources." As we have learned from our mentors such as Tom Gilbert and Joe Harless, and as we try to communicate to our colleagues and clients in every way we can, job aids can be among the most cost-effective means of improving performance.  Job aids such as checklists and decision tables are often less costly and more effective ways of supporting knowledge-based performance than training – or at least a way to significantly reduce the time required and the results obtained from training.

So this book and its message are close to our heart.  And by receiving as much positive attention as it has, we hope that it will help to deliver the message that non-training tools and resources should be one of the very first places we look to improve performance, reduce errors, and in some cases dramatically improve human safety and well-being.

by Carl Binder

<![CDATA[ I wish I knew then... ]]> I often look back over my management career and wish I could go back and re-solve some of those performance problems with the Six Boxes. How much time and energy was wasted! One of the most memorable for me, especially because the outcome was the loss of a good employee, always comes to mind.

I was part of the senior management team in a venture-backed telecom start-up. We were small, less than 30 people at that stage, and our functional staffing needs changed faster than we could hire (or even plan for). But we did hire strong players who we thought could flexibly contribute in many roles if needed. Unfortunately, we described that as hiring people “with the right attitude”. In this case, we hired a fellow with an excellent track record of bringing major divisions of global companies into ISO certification to set up our quality system as we needed to rapidly ramp a large scale manufacturing operation. Many of us had worked with him before and been impressed with his capabilities and easy nature. But that ‘rapid ramp’ turned into a slow crawl and we actually needed project managers to get the products developed. He’d be perfect, we all thought. But shortly, the CEO was grumbling, we still didn’t have product development under control, and it was all “an attitude problem”. He wasn’t “getting it” (no one ever told him what they meant by project management), he wasn’t “committed” (he wasn’t around at 9 pm with the engineers), he wouldn’t “get his hands dirty” (he didn’t know he was expected to be in the lab measuring the parts or even how to), and he was “a light weight” (he had a pretty interesting life outside the office). So without clear expectations of what project management entailed for this set of engineers (Box 1), or what constituted success (Box 1), without project management software and tools (Box 2), without being included in the personal satisfaction of being part of a team (Box 3), or ever having been taught the lab skills (Box 4), we had an “attitude” problem (Box 6). And he was the first to be laid off when the money got tight.

He did, of course, quickly get another job where he was successfully employed for many years, even through that company’s ups and downs. In retrospect, I see how unfortunate it was that we didn’t have the Six Boxes to diagnose and correct the challenge. While his personal capacity (Box 5) might not have been a perfect fit, he was a highly capable and valuable resource for a struggling young company that had precious little time and money to waste. Hours were lost as the CEO and others discussed his “attitude problem” while Rome burned (i.e. no working products). With the Six Boxes, we would have looked at our contribution before we jumped to his motives. Does he know what we mean by project management? What was the level of effort that the culture expected? Did he have what he needed to do the job? Was anyone coaching him and providing daily feedback? What would be a positive pay-off for him in this new role? How do we fit him in to a tight engineering team and make him feel accepted? With just a small amount of structured examination of the problem, I’m convinced he’d have been a valuable contributor.

Start-ups often claim there’s no time to bring people up to speed, to work with performance problems.  But the way that most companies are evolving, flatter organizations look a lot like start-ups and this challenge has to be approached differently. A quick, systematic approach to solving performance challenges is critical to not losing time or value from existing investments in people. Everyone needs to “think” in a way that gets to quick results and change without jumping to replacing the performer. Agility includes development of people and teams. Moving quickly and working with the people you have are what makes for successful companies.

I can't go back and change what I didn't know, but I sure hope I can help a lot of other people avoid the trauma that often accompanies unresolved performance problems. I truly believe that we can easily meet business goals and develop great people with really simple methods.

<![CDATA[ OK, so Box 2 can produce a HUGE impact! ]]> It's an old story that the top row of The Six Boxes Model generally provides more leverage than the bottom row. That's because the things we can do to change the environment (top row) are usually more powerful and broad-reaching than what we can do when we focus on the individual (bottom row).

It's also true that Box 2 is one of the greatest opportunities for producing big returns on investment in performance.  Not only do process and job design fit into Box 2, but also documentation, performance support systems, and JOB AIDS.

As our colleague Dr. Joe Harless has emphasized for decades, a good job aid (checklist, recipe, procedure guide, etc.) can often virtually eliminate the need for training while immediately improving performance quality and productivity. Sometimes a bit of training is needed to introduce job aids, but beyond that job aids are one of the very best ways to reduce time for training and improve performance, increasing overall performance ROI.

A recent article made this painfully clear.  As the best selling book, The Checklist Manifesto , documented some years ago, a simple checklist used by surgical teams reduced both accidental death rates and complications by nearly half!  It saved lives.

This is one of the reasons that checklists are required for use by airline pilots before they take off – the potential impact is just too important to leave to chance or human memory. It's also one of the reasons that we have always recommended the Information Mapping® Method, a research-based way of producing performance-focused documentation and job aids.  We've used the method for decades, and it virtually always improves performance as a Box 2 intervention, while laying a foundation for training – a Box 4 behavior influence.

While most of our clients are not dealing with these types of life-threatening situations, we have found over and over again that Box 2 interventions can dramatically reduce problems, improve performance, and allow organizations to achieve goals more rapidly at lower cost.

Do you have any dramatic examples where job aids measurably improved outcomes?  We'd like to know.

Carl Binder