Performance Management: The Application of Positive Reinforcement

Coincidentally over the past few days I have had conversations with several people on the topic of Performance Management and specifically the “ABC” technique or Antecedent, Behavior, Consequences as documented by Aubrey C. Daniels.

As Daniels describes it in his book, Performance Management: Improving Quality Productivity through Positive Reinforcement (3rd edition, revised, 1989):

Performance Management is a systematic, data-oriented approach to managing people at work that relies on positive reinforcement as the major way to maximizing performance. The essential words in this definition are systematic and data-oriented. Systematic means that in order to determine if any particular management procedure is effective, you must specify the behaviors and results to be affected. Furthermore, you must develop a way to measure these behaviors and results and determine the methods for changing current performance. The final steps are to use those methods and evaluate the results.

In my own deployments of Lean Six Sigma and other performance improvement initiatives, I have found Daniels’ approach highly synergistic with the foundational concepts of philosophies such as Lean Six Sigma because Daniels emphasizes the use of performance baselines and statistical methods to verify whether or not a shift in performance has changed after the application of a system of positive reinforcement (“intervention”). Practitioners of Six Sigma will immediately recognize how this mirrors the use of statistical process control (SPC) methods to detect statistically significant shifts in process performance.

Daniels, as he notes in his book, was not the originator of this thinking. Many other scientists have contributed to this large body of knowledge, most notably the American psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner asserted that positive reinforcement is superior to punishment in altering behavior and that positive reinforcement results in lasting behavioral modification, whereas punishment changes behavior only temporarily and presents many detrimental side effects (Skinner, B.F. (1970); Walden Two).

Daniels wrote another book that presents the theories of performance management for a lay audience titled Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, McGraw-Hill, 1994.