Whilst Mozart said “I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings” , most of us pay a great deal of attention to others’ praise and this has created a serious bias towards one sort of behaviour in our workplaces to the exclusion of others which can make a significant contribution to the desired organisational outcomes. 

What do you get rewarded for at work? When I say “rewarded”, I mean praised in some way, by your bosses, your colleagues and yourself. Most of us get rewarded for taking action. We get a “thank you” for completing a report on time, for acting to sort out a crisis or for achieving a target. We might also give ourselves praise for action taken. I certainly do when I have completed my “to do” list for the week. On a day to day basis there will be numerous cues reinforcing this focus on action. A senior manager lets everyone know that she was so busy (doing important stuff) she didn’t get to eat lunch until 4pm. A colleague gets praised in a meeting for getting the team event organised so quickly. The performance metrics for the department count all the calls made, enquiries dealt with and problems closed off.

Action is not the only behaviour we need at work

There is a significant problem with this emphasis on action though, because it means there is little acknowledgement of other types of behaviours which are also vital for team and organisational performance. Two of the most critical of these are reflection and learning.

Such is our bias for action at work that it can even seem counter intuitive to link an apparent state of inaction, whilst reflecting and learning from experience, with driving up business performance. The legend of the Andon Cord reminds us otherwise.

The Andon Cord

Tom Geraghty explains the story of the Andon Cord that was part of the Toyota Production System that transformed manufacturing in Japan in the post war period in his excellent psychological safety newsletter here. The Andon Cord is pulled by anyone on the shop floor who notices a defect, a tool issue or safety problem and the whole production line stops so that the issue can be dealt with, before the quality of the product is affected downstream of the issue. Please notice that word “stop”. Whilst later adaptions of the production line would mean smaller sections of the line would shut, the priority is on stopping to reflect on the issue and on finding a way to fix it. This reflection process is a very inclusive one, as co-workers all gather together to either fix the defect or put onto the Kanban – the signboard that signals the location of an issue that needs to be addressed.

How often do you and your team actually stop at work to acknowledge a “defect” that is affecting quality, and reflect together on potential solutions? I am guessing the answer is a version of, “Rarely because we have so much to do”. Yet the volume of work we have to attend to, is often swelled by previous “defects” that have not been attended to. Amazon follows an Andon Cord principle which means that its customer service agents can “stop the line” if a single product is found to have a fault and it is removed from the website until the issue is resolved. This saves considerable time and work with irate customers, who can see in real time that the product has been pulled for quality issues and are offered an alternative or a refund. It also empowers customer service agents to engage directly with the quality of the products and  creates trust with the customer.

Rewarding the right behaviour

What else is especially interesting about the Andon Cord at Toyota is that the first response to the person who has pulled it, is for others to thank and praise them. Whatever their status in the organisation, they are valued for spotting the defect and stopping the line. Such is the focus on quality that this behaviour is seen as a duty and a gift to the business and its customers.

Operant conditioning has shown us clearly that when a positive reinforcement follows a behaviour it makes it more likely that the behaviour will occur again in the future. So, by thanking the person who noticed the defect, you are ensuring people will be more comfortable to voice concerns in the future, and ensure issues are dealt with before they cause more disruption.

The Andon Cord experience makes me wonder about whether we give enough attention to the people who call an After Action Review and I don’t think we do. This behaviour is almost identical to the person who pulls the Andon Cord on a production line. They have noticed a defect or an experience that needs to be explored with others so that improvement can be made. So, this behaviour should be seen as a duty and a gift to the organisation as AARs are a driver of quality and safety.

Clearly, it’s time to thank those who call AARs, and for us all to reconsider the value of stopping in the workplace. Next time you notice