ABC’s and the psychology of operations improvement

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The “Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence” (ABC) model is a well used psychological approach for understanding what drives human behaviour good or bad, desired or undesired.

In a panel discussion about building trust, commitment and results in operations a few weeks back Andy Greig (former President of Bechtel’s Mining and Metals Business Unit) said that 80% of human behaviour is driven by consequences (despite most engineers believing “Antecedents” instructions, process and procedures to be the biggest driver).

“Think about it, it doesn’t matter how many times you tell your child not to touch the stove (antecedent) it’s only the pain of being burnt (consequence) that really drives the child not to touch it next time”

Andy believes this is true for the work place and that the managers’ role is to therefore apply positive and negative consequences in order to drive the behaviours required for safe and productive performance. (Watch a short video of Andy describing the ABC model).

So, how can this be used to manage an operation? The Management Operating System (MOS) or Commitment System (CS) (What the hell is a Commitments System) approach works by ensuring the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle is running at every level of a business. The ABC model can be successfully applied to ensure these approaches have a positive effect on results, in doing so leaders will be called to hold their people to account for behaving in line with their commitment system and for their performance against the plan.

Operations that have successfully implemented and sustained a commitment system almost always start by focusing on the creation of a good plan that supervisors can confidently lead their team with. This is important because without a good plan before the shift starts it is impossible to know whether the team has performed well or not. In addition to this planned work is both safer and more productive than unplanned work. (Watch a short video of Andy talking about planned work being safer at Bechtel).

However, as important as planning is, it is simply an antecedent to the core activity of improving operational performance.

The critical core of operations improvement is the learning that happens when variances from the plan are identified, root causes understood and actions taken to remove the causes of variance. In operations where a commitment system really takes hold and delivers improved results it is the dedicated and systematic removal of the causes of variance that delivers these results more than anything else.

This is where the ABC model connects to the commitment system. With the “antecedent” planning in place the application of consequences, positive and negative requires leaders to choose to hold their people to account both for the observed variances and for following the planning, review, action behaviours described above. Sadly, whilst simple, this can be very uncomfortable and difficult for managers and frontline leaders to do in reality. A couple of practical examples will help to illustrate this

Example 1. Planning
Imagine for a moment what would happen if a planner turned up to a planning meeting without having done any pre planning work to get his plan ready for the meeting. The manager could:

a) let it slide – in which case it’s unlikely that others will plan prior to their planning meetings as there is no direct consequence.

Alternatively the manager could:

b) send everyone back to their desks to complete their plan, delaying the meeting an hour – in this case the poor planning behaviour would be met with a sharp comment from the manager and an uncomfortable “consequence” of wasted time for the planner and his peers.

In option b) all planners will be much more likely to turn up prepared for the next planning meeting.

At daily review meetings a skilled operations manager will expect their superintendents to know what their variances are, to have understood why before the meeting and to have an action for each variance. They would also expect to hear that any actions assigned to each person in the room were being completed when expected.

Example 2. Review and Action
Imagine what would happen if a superintendent came to a daily review meeting with long stories about why they didn’t hit their targets and no actions to fix the causes of their underperformance.

The operations manager could:

a) Listen to the stories and engage in the conversation that they create never getting to an action, i.e. let it slide again as the meeting drags on and wastes everyone’s time.


b) Cut the story off and ask “what’s the variance” and “what action will you take, by when”.

The outcome of not applying a consequence in option a) is going to be lots of time wasted in meetings, low levels of action to resolve the causes of variance and continued poor performance.

However, because the operations manager applied a consequence in option b), creating an uncomfortable feeling by challenging the superintendent to behave in the desired way, it is likely that the desired behaviours will become more regular, meetings will become shorter and performance will improve. The consequence for superintendents that behave in the desired way will be a growing confidence from their manager, quick, focused meetings, a high performing team that delivers results.

In conclusion, given the antecedent of a good plan, operations managers and superintendents that reliably choose to hold their people to account by applying consequences, are many times more likely to build a high trust, high performance team that reliably delivers sustainable results. Doing this will earn them the confidence of their leaders and increase the likelihood of getting promoted or receiving a bonus.

Commit Works makes software (Fewzion and Visual Ops) that helps operations to out plan and out manage uncertainty. Talk to us or one of our partners about implementing a commitment system in your operation.