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QUALITY MANAGEMENT: The Role Habits Play in Building a Quality Culture

There has been so much research done in neuroscience in the past fifteen years that experts have a much better understanding of how the brain functions when it comes to decision making – even as it relates to growing a quality culture. Years ago we believed that information coming into the brain was automatically handled in the prefrontal cortex, or logical, complex thinking area of the brain. We now know that it’s the limbic system, the emotional center deep in the primitive area of the brain, that first processes information. Within the limbic system is the basal ganglia, which MIT researchers identified in the early 1990s as being integral to determining our decision-making behavior. Charles Duhigg suggests in his recent book, The Power of Habits, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, that much of what we do throughout the day is based on habit, not cognitive thought. The habit response is formed in the basal ganglia based on what Duhigg describes as a “cue-routine-reward” cycle that repeats based on our cravings to receive the reward.

As humans our strongest need is for consistency. When our world performs in a consistent manner, our basal ganglia routinely makes decisions based on the thousands of similar decisions made before. That’s why we don’t really think about how to put toothpaste on the toothbrush in the morning and even how to drive to work. We don’t bother to use the prefrontal cortex because there is no need to expend our energy to do so. The brain, as Duhigg suggests, is always “looking for ways to conserve effort.” So, if it’s something familiar, the basal ganglia is in the driver seat. Interestingly, the more we rely on the basal ganglia, the less mental activity we’re actually expending to the point that we hardly need to think at all. As Dughigg states, “The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.”

In the Context of Quality
Now, let’s put this in the context of a quality culture. Duhigg would suggest that if we’re concerned about building or sustaining a quality culture, we first must look for the cues in the environment that signal to the basal ganglia to react with a routine of quality behavior. What cues are picked up and acted upon? Let’s take a simple example. I’m writing this blog and the spellcheck red line appears (the cue), that causes me to right click to check the correct spelling (the routine). I do this action based on the basal ganglia, not the prefrontal cortex. It’s a habit of quality I’ve been doing for some time. When I’m done, I pass the blog on to an editor who checks it for errors. If she says, “Hey, great job. No errors,” then I receive my reward and repeat the behavior again. Based on positive feedback, I build a craving to repeat the spell check behavior each time. Now, what about the person who doesn’t use spellcheck? Well, the research would suggest that the red spellcheck line doesn’t function as a “cue” for that individual.

What’s important to remember is that all of this automatic behavior response is located in the emotional area of the brain. That’s probably why hospitals, retailers, and the hospitality industry are all very interested in feelings, more so than the “logic” of quality. There is growing recognition that the motivation to perform specific behaviors is an emotional center, rather than a rational center of the brain. Our challenge as quality professionals is to be very aware of what cues or triggers are in the environment that frame a quality mindset (or don’t), the routine responses to the cues that are programmed deep in our brains, and how these responses are rewarded to ensure a quality culture. If the cues are obscure or too variable, the routine response will be diluted or non-existent, affecting whether the brain sees the behavior as a loop worth remembering in the future. As this process – cue, routine, reward – repeats, Duhigg suggests, “They become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.” What we might call feelings for quality. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making,” Duhigg adds.

Building a Quality Culture of Habit
If the process supports a quality culture the pattern will unfold automatically. Conversely, if the process doesn’t support a quality culture, that pattern will unfold automatically. Our job is to build the cue-pattern-reward system for quality to the point where it becomes an overwhelming craving– or feeling – for quality excellence in each of us.


I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own. 



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