Shamu, husbands, children, inmates, managers and employees… all respond to reinforcement.

For the past couple of weeks the most emailed article on the New York Times has been Amy Sutherland’s “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” in which she shares her application of animal training, learned from watching Shamu’s trainers, to training of her husband to fetch and heal.

No one has reported how her husband feels about all the attention. We don’t know if he is barking wildly or just whimpering in the corner while he awaits a treat or tummy rub.

My daughter emailed me this article and it made me wonder whether she is aware of the degree to which she is a product of “Shamuism.”

Of course, this is all about elementary learning theory or behavior modification, positive reinforcement, behavior shaping, extinction, etc., all studied and promoted by B. F. Skinner and his followers. I began my career working in prisons and established the first token economy in a prison, a checking account system in which inmates “learned to earn”, paid for everything with prison money (points), including rent in one of four dormitories, a luxury, quality, standard, or efficiency dorm.

My wife and I used behavioral principles in raising our children, usually avoiding punishment and relying on positive reinforcement for desired behavior. It works.

After prison I went to work for Fran Tarkenton’s company, one of the pioneers in applying positive reinforcement, what we called “Behavior Management” to the work place.

As Amy Sutherland has discovered (I guess old lessons have to be relearned in new packaging every few years) the power of positive reinforcement has not been diminished as new theories have been promoted in recent years.

If you examin the world’s best companies, including Toyota and Honda, Dell and Intel, you will find that they have integrated behavior shaping, ing, and other techniques of positive reinforcement into their system. They don’t have “Behavior Management” programs that stand out as temporary and hyped efforts. Rather, they simply do a good job of recognizing and rewarding the behavior that leads to competitive success. That includes quality improvement, innovation, cost control, etc.

If you were going to design the ideal organizational system (my favorite frame of reference), part of that design, integrated with the other pieces of the whole-system, would be well thought out system of positive reinforcement. The ideal system would include a few basics of effective behavior modification:

1. It would not rely on one “schedule of reinforcement” but would include multiple schedules. It would include variable, as well as fixed interval schedules. Variable schedules result in stronger behavior that is more resistent to extinction.

2. It would include both tangible (money, for example) as well as social schedules of reinforcement.

3. It would not assume the ability to defer gratification over long periods and would, therefore provide immediate reinforcement, such as the awarding of points that could later be exchanged for a tangible reward.

4. It would be administrated consistently so all employees felt an opportunity for reinforcement.

5. It would follow the principle of “shaping” that calls for reinforcing successive approximations to a desired performance, and not hold out the reward for performance that many found impossible to reach.
“important” to the success of the organization.

But, perhaps most importantly, any system of positive reinforcement, or Shamuism, should not be a stand alone program that comes and goes. It should be part of the architecture of the whole-system of the organization.

(A commercial note: In my new book there is a chapter titled “When You Make Performance Matter – the Currency of Appreciation” in which I discuss this topic in more depth. )