Falling back on willpower

Does everyone in your organization understand the ‘why’ of improving the business? Is ‘the right thing to do’ an automatic behavior?

Five months ago I lost over twenty pounds and have easily managed to keep it off.  Losing the weight took little effort and holding onto my success takes little willpower.  It was so easy because I knew the ‘why’ of making the right choices and I was supported by what became automatic behaviors.

The ‘why’: We were never designed to eat the low nutrient, high calorie, very processed Standard American Diet (SAD) that has become the norm.  This diet is the primary reason over one third of Americans are obese and nearly two thirds are overweight.

‘The right thing to do’: I lost the weight by eating what we were designed to consume: a whole foods, plant based diet (I’m not alone, either, even Bill Clinton is doing the same). It was simple and choices were easy.

The key to success:  I didn’t need to rely on the scarcest of human assets, willpower.  Let’s face it, change is hard enough and if change involves long periods of doing what you really don’t want to do, it is doomed.  It seems simple, but too often businesses that are seeking transformation make this mistake.

Business willpower

Great change initiatives, from continuous improvement to customer satisfaction, are started because of organizational ‘weight gain’ that hurts profitability and customer perception. But soon enough, the excitement of early gains fades and people naturally return to the way things were always done.

Organizations need to have a science and push automatic behaviors to make any meaningful change to the way business is done.  The science involve root cause analysis coupled with research about what practices have worked for others. Behaviors must become cultural and automatic. They must pervade every decision from how teams are formed to how work is executed and measured.

Every time I look in the mirror, I know this works.


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Categories: Continuous Improvement, Disciplines, Workplace Reality

Author:Tom Molyneux

A business process strategist with a focus on real-time event management.

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12 Comments on “Falling back on willpower”

  1. May 7, 2012 at 7:11 am #

    Your point about things returning naturally “to the way things were always done” is likely the biggest challenge faced by agents of change. I recently searched for research on the latest understanding on habit formation. I published some of my findings in an article for BPTrends. This might be helpful to your readers: http://www.bptrends.com/deliver_file.cfm?fileType=publication&fileName=05%2D01%2D2012%2DART%2DDon%27t%20Just%20Manage%2D%2DExecute%2DBellinson%2Epdf

    • May 7, 2012 at 7:39 am #

      Tom, thanks for the BPTrends paper on habits and sustainability, which are both very relevant topics. The challenge of sustainable change is two fold. Change must be informed by science or it won’t have any value. However, that change must then be executed in a way that takes account of how people actually behave.

  2. Ron Webb
    May 7, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    We are hearing sustainable change as a key trend among our members. They are looking for information on how to overcome resistance in two key areas of process improvement. 1. The start (when you have to lose the weight) and 2. After the new wears off (everyone you know has told you how great you look, but you are addicted to the attention — where do you go).
    We’ll probably commission a best-practice research project on this later this year. I’ll keep the blog posted (pun!) on the progress.

    • May 7, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

      Thanks for the post and glad to hear that this is relevant with your members. Please keep us posted about your best-practice research project.

  3. May 7, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

    Ron, I think the biggest problem with change is that it isn’t systematic. This is what I posted on our internal social network (tibbr):

    “Organizations can’t get people to collaborate and change based on willpower anymore than a diet helps us lose weight long-term.

    Organizational weight loss requires a systematic approach, based on reality (information) and automatic behaviors. It has to be everyone and it has to be reinforced. Lacking a platform for change, getting better at what you is very, very difficult when the front-line people aren’t deeply involved in the change.

    It’s the reason Lean is popular…because it is a system that is self-reinforcing. The irony is that orgs do Lean very manually.”

  4. Ron Webb
    May 8, 2012 at 5:49 am #

    Yes, in many organizations, I see Lean driven by the will of others in many cases. Just like with Six Sigma. The employees doing the actual work aren’t the folks that are bought into the change (changing their eating habits), it is the group that is trained to bring this along; the “belts”.
    My background is in community health, and this is one of the reasons that I decided to move out of that field. I found myself counseling someone on nutritional habits that wasn’t going to change their behavior. I was giving them the evidence (blood pressure, cholesterol levels, etc.), but they had very good reasons for their behavior (they liked it, eating was a social activity and how their family bonded, etc.). I was manually trying to get people to change behavior that had built and reinforced over decades. Much like organizations.
    There were very few bright spots that made it out of that cycle, and they were those that tried, but didn’t focus on will power. It’s not a diet, it is a change in behavior, and that is what systematic change is in the end. I’ve found that happens best within organizations either gradually over time, or through a complete mind shift when a new leader comes in, and totally replaces the culture through replacing most of the key staff.
    What other ways have you seen this change really take effect?

    • May 8, 2012 at 9:30 am #

      Ron, thanks for citing your actual experience with change and why it often doesn’t stick. You are absolutely right that it is about behavior change. There has been a great deal of research around habit over the last decade. One of the key points that has come out of this is that habits are a cycle of cue, routine behavior, reward. Once formed, habits are essentially wired into the brain.

      One of the most successful strategies to change habits at the personal level is to identify the individual pieces of this cycle and then replace the routine behavior with something more beneficial but that fires from the same cue and provides the same reward.

      In your example from health care, it could look something like: reward = “they liked it, eating was a social activity and how their family bonded”. Next identify the routine = eating poor food. Lastly, substitute a new routine – healthy meals that provide the same rewards. So the key here is really to learn how to cook (or order) quick, satisfying healthy meals. Without this key requirement that makes the change operational, the education component alone is unlikely to yield sustained change.

  5. Mark Jaben
    May 8, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    It might be worthwhile to listen to the 2007 Reith lecture by Jeffrey Sachs ( I think this is correct; available through their website.). Change takes 4 steps
    1) The science illustrating the problem must be established
    2) Then, there must be a catalyst to make it ‘visible’ and important to people; in his case talking about the international treaty to ban CFC’s, the NASA picture of the ozone hole brought it home to everyone involved
    3) Then it requires a period of ‘R&D’ where those at risk from the change figure out how to survive in the new world order
    4) Then, the official proclamation and implementation can occur.

    Pushback only happens for a couple reasons:
    1) The problem to be addressed was not articulated and understood well enough by each person involved- the hardest part as it requires honestly seeking and incorporating alternate and sometimes contrary viewpoints that may be valid and necessary to craft the ‘best’ change.
    2) The change is asking someone to do something that they believe will hinder their ability to be successful in their responsibilities, whether that viewpoint is valid or not- this can be tested
    3) The potential benefit is just not seen as worth the effort- ie an individual’s piece of the issue is not well connected to the over arching purpose

    People will gladly do things they see as a benefit to them in their world.
    Sometimes, the ‘picture of ozone hole’ is obvious; sometimes it takes some time and effort and a little luck to find it.

    Mark Jaben, MD

    • May 8, 2012 at 8:23 am #

      Excellent, well-thought-out comments. Thank you.

    • May 8, 2012 at 9:56 am #

      Mark, I think this is a link to the piece you cited: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2007/

      I agree that the four steps you cite are required for change. I especially like the point about making it visible. It must also, as you point out, must be seen as something that is worthwhile. However, there is also a large behavioral aspect that is not strictly rational but rather driven by habits and reflexive patterns. So, even if you have all the pieces mentioned above, change can still fail to take place (or stick). A couple of examples from today’s news:

      Two news stories came out today about obesity in the US. Once estimated that 42% of Americans will be obese by 2030 (http://news.yahoo.com/fat-forecast-42-americans-obese-2030-192747932–abc-news-health.html
      ). So here is a well understood problem, with plenty of science behind it, that continues to get worse rather than better.
      A second story: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/08/us-usa-health-obesity-idUSBRE8470LC20120508 had this quote:
      “People have heard the advice to eat less and move more for years, and during that time a large number of Americans have become obese,” IOM committee member Shiriki Kumanyika of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine told Reuters. “That advice will never be out of date. But when you see the increase in obesity you ask, what changed? And the answer is, the environment. The average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment.”

  6. May 8, 2012 at 8:28 am #

    Ron, the change needs to have several characteristics:

    – Must originate with or at least involve opinion of those affected (think Toyota Production System)
    – Must be analyzed for cost, benefit and disruption
    – Must be very, very well communicated and then reinforced and measured

    I don’t know how that happens without a system in place (culture and technology) that makes it second nature and easy to do.

  7. Mark Jaben
    May 8, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    Tom, Quite well said- that is the part about luck. But in the obesity example, the ‘picture’ has to be something the obese person ‘sees’. What I see or we see doesn’t translate to everyone else.

    As Chris said, it must originate or at least be vetted through those required to change their ‘standard procedure’ (in the obesity case, their pattern of eating, exercise, emotional connection, assumptions about their world, etc). In the Reith lecture I mentioned, the NASA picture of the ozone hole resonated with the public AND with the chemical company executives who now connected this to the future for their grandchildren, making the case that a change was needed.Then they figured out how they could still prosper with a new propellent. Then the treaty was a no brainer.

    In my world in the Emergency Department, recently, that ‘picture’ was a near miss that enabled everyone, nurses, doctors, techs, clerks, managers to see in this instance, we really had to do things better. That’s when people looked critically at the way we handled that instance and were willing to change their routines. Those changes have not required reinforcement, retraining, or much reminding.

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