September 26, 2020 16 min read

Human Performance Improvement (HPI) Basics: Gilbert’s Behavioral Engineering Model (BEM)


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Human Performance Improvement, or HPI, is the field of study dedicated to creating methods that allow us to better (1) identify workplace problems, (2) analyze their cause(s), (3) come up with interventions that will lead to meaningful performance improvements, and (4) evaluate those interventions to make sure they were successful and to check to see if they created unintended negative consequences.

HPI is both a systematic method and a systemic method for workplace performance improvement. When we say that HPI is systematic, we mean the various HPI models present a sequential, step-by-step process the HPI professional can use to work through the performance problem identification and solution process listed in brief above. There are numerous systematic HPI models for doing this, and in this article, we’re going to discuss one of those–Thomas Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model, also known as BEM. We’ve already discussed a few other systematic HPI models, including the ATD HPI model and the Rummler/Brache Nine Variables HPI model.

When we say that HPI is systemic, we mean it takes into account the interrelationship between different components of different systems at the workplace. Here’s how William Rothwell, Carolyn Hohne, and Stephen King put that in their book Human Performance Improvement: Building Practitioner Performance: “This open-systems phenomenon has been likened to a spider web, in which force applied to one part tends to echo, resound, and reverberate throughout the web.”

  1. And one last point to keep in mind: the HPI method is driven by data, and the HPI practitioner should be too. HPI has its roots in engineering, and accordingly it has a built-in demand for collecting and analyzing data at all stages throughout the HPI process (instead of merely hoping, relying on hunches, or simply not thinking about it). This demand for data goes back at least to Edward Deming (download our Deming’s 14 Points of Management infographic here).

For those of you wondering, human performance improvement (HPI) is also known as human performance technology (HPT). It’s sad that we live in a world where we can’t have nice things and we have multiple names and acronyms for the same idea, but that’s the world we live in. But don’t let this confuse you–if one person is talking about HPI and another is talking about HPT, they’re talking about the same stuff! 🙂

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Who Was Thomas Gilbert?

Gilbert was a psychologist who was one of the founders of human performance improvement, although he himself called it “performance engineering” (again, we can’t have nice things like just one name for the same thing).

Gilbert is best known for his book Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, first published in 1978.

You can pick up a few things about Gilbert just from the title of that book. He talks about “engineering,” as his HPI model is designed to help create performance improvement. He talks about creating “competence” instead of incompetence at specific tasks or jobs through that engineering. And he’s focused on helping to create “worthy performance(s).”

In the sections of this article below, we’ll briefly introduce you to Gilbert’s so-called “four leisurely theories” and his “behavior engineering model,” both of which will tie into these ideas of engineering, worthy performance, and competence.

If you’d like to learn and study up on Gilbert even more, we’d like to refer you to this curated list of “Gilbert Resources” at the excellent HPT Treasures website maintained by our friend Guy Wallace.

Behavior, Performance, Accomplishment & Measurement

One thing to keep in mind when thinking about Gilbert and his theories and models for human performance improvement is that he made a distinction between behavior and performance and he believed that performance leads to measurable accomplishment.

Gilbert believed the HPI professional shouldn’t focus on behavior, but instead on performance that creates accomplishments one can measure.

Here’s how this is explained in Foundations of Instructional Performance Technology by Seung-Youn Chyung:

Gilbert (1976) clarified that performance is different from behavior, and that performance should be measured based on the degree of accomplishment.

For example, a typist’s hand position on the keyboard and the tone of voice of a telephone help-desk clerk are measures of their behavior, not their accomplishment. Instead, the focus should be on measuring the typist’s rate of completing error-free manuscripts and measuring the telephone help-desk clerk’s accuracy in trouble-shooting and other diagnostic processes…

Gilbert (1976, 1978) believed that virtually all performance can be measured if we focus on accomplishment instead of human behavior…For example, he explained that a writer’s performance could be measured by not only the number of manuscripts produced, but also by the readers’ satisfaction or by the number of times people cited the manuscripts.

Gilbert’s Four Leisurely Theorems

Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model (BEM) is one of his four leisurely theorems. I know that’s a strange phrase (hey, I didn’t name it!) and I’m not going to get into why Gilbert chose that name, but if you’re curious there’s a good explanationin Chyung’s Foundations of Instructional Performance Technology.

The four theorems are:

  • Worthy performance
  • Measurement
  • Behavior Engineering Model (BEM)
  • Multiple levels of evaluating accomplishment

Let’s take a little closer look at each, below.

Gilbert’s First Leisurely Theorem: Worthy Performance

According to Gilbert, “human competence is a function of worthy performance, which is a ratio of of valuable accomplishments to costly behavior.” This is Gilbert’s first leisurely theorem.

Mathematically, Gilbert writes this as W = A/B, where W is worthy performance, A is valuable accomplishments, and B is costly behavior.

So, in short, a performance improvement analysis and intervention has to lead to a greater increase in valuable accomplishments than the costly behavior that it creates.

Gilbert’s Second Leisurely Theorem: Measurement

Gilbert believes we should compare the performance of a “typical” worker against the performance of a worker with the same job who creates the high level of accomplishments in that job. This second worker is the “exemplary” performer.

Making that comparison between the accomplishments of the typical worker and the exemplary worker gives us an idea of how much performance improvement we can hope to attain from the typical worker through HPI efforts. This is the potential for improving performance, or PIP.

The PIP is calculated by dividing the performance/worthy accomplishment of the exemplary performer by the performance/worthy accomplishment of the typical performer. Mathematically, Gilbert puts it this way: PIP = W ex / W t.

This PIP calculation gives us a ratio, and it’s a measurement of opportunity for performance improvement. If that ratio/opportunity is high enough, we should intervene to raise the typical performance to the exemplary performance.

Gilbert’s Third Leisurely Theorem: The Behavior Engineering Model

We’re going to discuss this in more detail below–check it out.

It is worth noting that Gilbert also sometimes called this the management theorem, because it helps managers identify the causes of competence and incompetent performance at work.

Gilbert’s Fourth Leisurely Theorem: Human Accomplishments Can Be Viewed At Multiple Levels

The fourth and last of Gilbert’s leisurely theorems for HPI states that human accomplishment(s) can be viewed from multiple levels. For example, the individual level, the team/department level, the organization level, and the societal level. Additionally, the value that place on performance or accomplishment at one level is drawn from the perspective of the level above it.

For example, the value of a department’s efforts are seen through the perspective of the organization, and the value of the organization’s accomplishments are seen through the perspective of society.

This is an acknowledgement of the systemic nature of HPI and of Gilbert’s thought.

Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model

The BEM is Gilbert’s third leisurely theorem.

In the first theorem, Gilbert stated W = A/B, where W is worthy performance, A is valuable accomplishments, and B is costly behavior.

Gilbert adds more detail to that equation with the BEM.

First, Gilbert explains that be B can be thought of as P + E, in which P is the cost of making changes to the person’s “behavior repository” and E is the cost of making changes to the person’s work environment.

So that means when we’re thinking of performance improvement interventions, we should look at environment and behavior. Gilbert believes we should try environmental changes first, because he thinks they’re the easiest ones to put into place and therefore the ones most likely to lead to the desired potential improvement in performance.

But Gilbert goes further than that, breaking environment and behavior each down into three smaller components.

First, he breaks environmental supports down as shown below:

  1. Data: performance expectations and feedback from management about performance.
  2. Instruments: tools, materials, equipment, time, financial support, and other resources need to complete the job.
  3. Incentives: reward for doing job well.

And second, he breaks behavior down as shown below:

  1. Knowledge: knowledge necessary to do job.
  2. Capacity: capability to do the job.
  3. Motives: does the worker want to do the job?

So what we end up with is a six-box table as shown below. Gilbert recommends moving from left to right, completing the top row first and the bottom row later.

Gilber's Behavorial Engineering Model

Conclusion: You Should Add Gilbert’s BEM Model to Your HPI Toolkit

We hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to HPI (or HPT, or Performance Engineering…), Thomas Gilbert, and the Behavior Engineering Model (BEM). Stay tuned for more articles on HPI that you can use to create meaningful performance improvements at your workplace.

And don’t forget to download our free Mager & Pipe Solving Workplace Problems Flowchart infographic, below, before you go!

Solving Workplace Problems Infographic

Based on the famous Mager/Pipe flowchart.

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Analyzing and Solving Workplace Performance Problems Infographic Image

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