Rapid Habit Formation

3 Steps to protect your team during pandemics

Lessons from Lean Hospitals and OBM

When pandemics strike, they spread quickly, as in the current COVID-19 crisis.   Our goal is to respond quickly.  Just as highway departments have Rapid Response Teams for spills of hazardous material, we want to react to pandemics with Rapid Habit Formation countermeasures. During this pandemic, a convergence of ‘best practices’ from Lean and Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) can help us build new safe habits rapidly.

Servers sharing hand sanitizerFor example, one behavior to keep us safe is frequent hand washing/sanitizing.

The big obstacle to doing so is old habits.  Old habits work against us.  Old habits are unconscious. Their habit strength is strong.  For many years, each of us have washed our hands only before eating. The antecedent trigger is mealtimes and/or lunchrooms.

Just telling people, “Remember to wash your hands,” is the least effective method.  Telling people to do something is a verbal antecedent, and OBM tells us that verbal antecedents are weak.

Instead, do these 3 things:

  1. Position hand sanitizer on the doorway entrance to a patient’s room in a hospital, and/or the entrance to your workplace.  Lean tells us to position tools at the point of use.  OBM tells us to use antecedents just before you want the behavior to occur.  We want the behavior of using hand sanitizer just before entering the hospital patient’s room or just before entering the work area.
  2. Walk the workspace 4-5 times a day.  Lean says Gemba gembutsu: “go to the workplace and see for yourself.”  OBM tells us to observe behaviors.
  3. When you see the behavior of using hand sanitizer, signal approval.  OBM calls this social positive reinforcement to build the new behavior up to habit strength.  Thumbs up, “air” high- fives or short comments such as, “You’re a good role model” or “You’re helping keep us safe” will signal your approval of the behavior.

    Like the shampoo bottle says: rinse, lather, repeat.  Repeat these three steps 4-5 times a day every day for 3-4 weeks.  This is a lot of work, but we are fighting to overcome the “800-pound gorilla” of old habits.  When you see hand sanitizing done every time someone passes a dispenser, you have succeeded.  You can thin out your spot checks to 3-4 times a week.  The new behavior is now a habit.

    Coworkers with masks elbow rubbingThis is work that requires effort.  But remember the saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.”  Right now, that’s the continued spread of COVID-19.  Help to stop the virus with these 3 Lean/OBM steps to build the new habit.  They work.


For more on Rapid Habit Building, take my online course “Leading Lean / Six Sigma in Healthcare: Making the Changes Last.”

Leading Lean Six Sigma in Healthcare Course information

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For application to other situations, see my book: 

Sustain Your Gains – The People Side of Lean – Six Sigma.

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