Cleaning the Pit

Most tasks arent as unappealing as cleaning “the pit,” but this extreme and real example clearly illustrates the factors that influence human performance.

Peter, a crew chief at a manufacturing plant, was dissatisfied with the way his crew cleaned “the pit.” While his last crew had always done a good job, this crew did a bad job every time.

Some jobs are better than others, but cleaning  the pit is a downright nasty job. At this plant, equipment is set in a two and a half story pit that must be cleaned regularly for the production line to function properly. The plant is hot and dirty, but the pit is worse.
To clean it, the worker dons white protective clothing and uses solvent to scrub around equipment, working bent over in a confined, filthy, over-heated space. Everyone on Peter’s crew did a bad job cleaning the pit, and they were frequently harassed about it by other crews.

Time for a change.

Relying on the Kepner-Tregoe Model for Human Performance, Peter reviewed the performance system for the crew. He wanted to change the response. His crew didn’t clean the pit well—they just wanted to get out fast. No one wanted to do the job.

He considered the expectations.

Were the expectations clearly defined? He knew that his people understood what a good job was and were capable of doing it—they just wouldn’t. The signal to perform was clear too. When it was time to start the day in the pit, the tools were in place and everyone understood what should happen next. While the situation wasn’t particularly conducive to any kind of work, the tools, safety precautions, and protective gear made the job doable. The feedback to the crew members from the crew chief was reinforced by the other crews; Peter’s crew was doing a bad job cleaning the pit.

How about the consequences?

The crew understood that the consequences of a clean pit were overwhelmingly positive on the production line—fewer bearing problems, better running equipment, and more uptime.The positive consequences to the organization were substantial.

Peter also considered  the consequences to the performer. These were overwhelmingly negative—a  sore back, cracked knuckles, and the knowledge  that another turn to do this dreaded  task would come again. The positive consequences to the organization  were overwhelmed by the negative consequences to the individual.

What was different?

Peter reflected  back to his days as a crew member, “When I was on the crew, we cleaned it well. The job was done by volunteers, not by roster, and I always volunteered.” What was different about the job that made people actually volunteer? Peter realized it was the consequences to the performer. His old crew chief would do a white-glove inspection after the pit was cleaned. When it was acceptably clean, the pit cleaner could be crane coordinator for the rest of the shift.

Crane coordinator?

In this facility, the schedule was organized around the use of the crane. Jobs had to be heavily scheduled and sequenced for the crane, which was in high demand. Scheduling was done by contacting the crane coordinator who sat in an air-conditioned office that had a coffee machine and a TV.

Now Peter had identified a positive consequence that could get the response he wanted. Cleaning  the pit became voluntary and whoever volunteered also served as crane coordinator.

Immediately the dreaded  job had volunteers who grabbed an hour and a half of drudgery in order to spend the rest of the day in the air-conditioned crane coordinator office. Inspired by positive consequences, Peter’s crew had moved from being the worst to the best pit cleaners.

Using the performance system model to get results.

When people are not working near their full potential, a closer look at the performance system may reveal the cause and the changes needed to support improvement.