Processes Have Similar Characteristics to Habits

Processes Have Similar Characteristics to Habits

Having been involved in the business process improvement profession for years, I began to observe similarities between habits and processes. This was reinforced after just listening again to a terrific interview done by the producer of Fresh Air Terry Gross of WHYY in Philadelphia distributed nationally by National Public Radio (NPR).

In the 2012 interview New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg talked about his book The Power of Habit which explores the science behind why we do what we do. Duhigg also describes the structure of a habit.

My curiosity was elevated as he described how to change a habit. In particular, to do so one should analyze the structure of it. He pointed out that a habit is made up of a cue, routine and reward. Duhigg points out: “What we know from lab studies is that it’s never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure — that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change.”

My interest in this topic specifically involves how to take this science and apply it to process change. My personal belief is that a process is not unlike a habit. Knowing that it’s difficult to break old habits and form new ones is similar to the characteristics of changing a process. Once ingrained in the process owner, it becomes difficult to change the process for the better or worst.

So in a process, what are the cues, routines, and rewards? In simple terms, the cues are the triggers. For this discussion, they are what was inherited, taught, or created on how to conduct the process. For example, I recently hired a new bookkeeper to work on the accounting platform we use. Our external accounting firm that did it before was asked to teach this new person, amongst other things, how to reconcile our bank accounts. The new bookkeeper inherited this “Bank Reconciliation Process” which is one that our CPA firm uses. Unless it is otherwise changed, this now becomes the de facto process and a cue for our new bookkeeper. Not casting judgment on whether this process is right, best, or improvable, it is our company’s bank reconciliation process. In many companies, such cues and routines (i.e., triggers and processes) occur daily.

The reward in this case is the output of the process. That is, if the process is done satisfactorily, then there’s a happy outcome. This can be a satisfied customer (i.e., in my example, me) because I am getting the reward (i.e., my desired output) that satisfied my need for our financial information in a timely manner and at a much lower cost. The reward for the process owner can be simply recognition, a pat on the back, occasional salary increases, promotions, etc.

The larger point here is that when these processes are established, they become repetitive, habit forming, and very difficult to change. They become the de facto processes in our companies. And without continuous examination and/or analysis of these processes, quite frankly, we don’t know if they are optimized or not. My experience in examining many clients’ processes is that they are more often than not sub-optimized.

Like a habit, a process has a cost. The cost of a habit can be emotional or even physical. It manifests itself in a craving, such as an uncontrolled desire for a cookie (sugar), regardless of its damaging consequences of weight gain or health. On the other hand, the cost of a broken process can be a defective product or service that is derived from low quality output. Ultimately, this can result in highly dissatisfied customers, as well as lost revenue.

So, how do you effectively and permanently change a habit or process? Duhigg’s investigative work uncovered clues on how to create change. As he describes, the golden rule of habit change is that if you want to change a habit, don’t try to change everything all at once. Also, to be successful you need to find what the real cue is, what the reward is, and find a new behavior that is triggered by that cue and delivers that same reward.

Applying this philosophy to process change, I recommend three things:

  1. Do not to attempt a “boil the ocean” approach. Find the process area that is important enough to make a substantial impact, but not too large or difficult that success could be elusive. Start small initially and then add to it as you achieve success.
  2. Figure out what the cue is. Interview the process owners and participants to determine why are they doing the routine the way it’s done, what is the initial trigger (influence), and how is the process being done. Define and model the critical processes in your value chain (i.e., the path that delivers true value).
  3. Determine what the best reward is. Question the reward system, as individuals may have completely different motivations for doing what they do. Find rewards that get the desired results for the company and drives individuals to their highest levels of performance.

The end result is that even when a process is ingrained in the way teams work, it can be changed, and more important improved. This takes a concerted effort and quite often requires external resources that are not working closely within the group; someone that has a different perspective.

To check out the NPR interview visit: Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them.

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