Keystone Habits

Keystone Habits provide everyone in your company a simple, basic message that creates purpose, direction and energy. So what is it and why is it so effective?

First, let’s look at how one man, Claude Hopkins, accelerated a recognizable habit: brushing your teeth. Claude, an ad man from the early 1900s, had a problem. He had agreed to help sell a new brand of toothpaste when only 8% of the population even brushed their teeth. What would it take to do that?

As Charles Duhigg observes in his book The Power of Habit, Claude used a basic habit-creating process. First he identified a cue to remind you to brush (the film you feel on your teeth) and then created a craving (a beautiful smile). Cues trigger an action, resulting in a reward. Repeat it over and over; you have a habit.

Cue –-> Routine –-> Reward

Film on Your Teeth –-> Brush Your Teeth –-> Beautiful Smile

Five years later, the Pepsodent Smile was huge and Pepsodent toothpaste was flying off the shelves. But what does this mean for creating great results at your company?

Skip ahead to 1987 and Paul O’Neill, the new CEO of Alcoa. From prior experiences at International Paper and in the federal government, O’Neill understood that Keystone Habits for business were like good habits for people.

His first action as CEO was to identify and establish a Keystone Habit, which, Duhigg explains, can power an organization to change old habits and transform performance. O’Neill’s keystone for transforming large, stodgy, heavily-unionized Alcoa? Worker Safety.

After announcing worker safety as the top priority, O’Neill’s next step was to require unit presidents to report to him directly within 24 hours any safety violation. To accomplish this, managers had to come up with updated communications methods – from management to floor supervisors to workers and back. While worker safety was the goal, it also drove more efficient, better communication in all areas.

Union members were given a greater voice in solving safety issues and started introducing ideas, like a new pouring system to reduce molten metal splashing on employees. The results? Not only fewer safety violations but also greater productivity and improved operations.

Bottom line: Rallying around a singular keystone issue, worker safety, Alcoa hit record profits one year later. By 2000, someone who had invested in Alcoa when O’Neill began there would have had all of his money returned in dividends while his stock would be worth five times as much.

So when you look at your business, what’s your core, Keystone Habit? Do you have something like worker safety or, like at Apple, making the complex simple? Whatever it is that you’re trying to do out there, strive to develop a very important routine within your business, something that everyone can do on a constant basis that can improve and transform everything. It will truly grow and simplify your business.

And remember, as Mark Twain said, “nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”


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