The 27 Times Rule
As a team leader, you deliver the same direction over and over again. You explain, you demonstrate, you feel like you’re grinding it in. Then, just when you think your team finally gets it, they take two steps back!
Do you ever wonder when your direction and demonstration will become second nature to the person you are training? What I am about to tell you may stress you out, as you probably have a long road ahead to get what you expect from the people in your operation.
Here’s my rule: Around the 27th time you tell them what you expect, they will get it.
For 28 years, I attended Jamboree in the Hills, an outdoor music festival held in an open field. It is attended by around 100,000 people, all eager to rush in and find the best spot in the field to watch the show. It’s chaotic when the gates open first thing in the morning, and hard to keep track of your group with so many people running around. So each year we would tell our friends, “When they open the gates, run to the right side of the right aisle and stay back about 100 feet from the stage.”
Without fail, every year our group would scatter. Some ran to the left; some ran to the right. Some ran to a spot 50 feet back from the stage, while others ran 200 feet back. We ended up with small groups here, there and everywhere…often not having enough room for our large group to enjoy the show together from one location.
One year, we had a heck of a time finding our friend David. Eventually he came walking up to the group. When we asked where he had been, he said, “Well, I thought we were all running to the hot dog stand.” Apparently, we hadn’t explained our game plan enough times to ensure that everyone knew what to do and where to go in the midst of the chaos. It was several years and at least 27 times explaining the drill before everyone got it straight. When they did, we always had plenty of room for a large group to enjoy the show.
For years, I have explained the 27 times rule to my staff. At a foremen meeting the other day, James Hoskinson, the president of our masonry division, stated, “Guys, I know I haven’t told you 27 times yet, so I am telling you again. When someone is late or doesn’t show up for work, we need you to write down the circumstances surrounding the absence on the master timecard so we will have this information to use during the next evaluation, and when considering future pay raises for the employees.” It was satisfying to see the patience James displayed as he had learned and used the 27 times rule.
James has started reinforcing the rule with his team. When a foreman complains that the laborers are not setting the scaffold ahead of time so the bricklayers have a place to go when they finish their current wall, the foreman knows the first thing James will ask is, “Have you told them 27 times how to set scaffold ahead of time to ensure they got it?”
Your team can’t do the job well if they haven’t yet learned how to do it.
The Four Laws of Learning help explain this concept. The four laws are:
It takes all four steps for the human brain to master a concept, and No. 4 shows that doing the task just a few times simply isn’t enough.
Coach John Wooden used this concept to propel his team into greatness. He is one of the most revered coaches in all of sports, leading UCLA to 10 national basketball championships in just 12 years. Since then, his management style has been adopted by both sports and business leaders alike. Coach Wooden insists that there are in fact eight laws of learning instead of four. His version includes: explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition and repetition.
Based on my experience, I agree that repetition is more critical than the rest. You might be asking yourself, “Why do I need to repeat it to my team? They’re adults. They should just get it.”
I understand that. I really do. We’re all busy. But we need our employees to repeat an action enough times that it stops being a task and instead becomes habit. We want it to be automatic.
Repetition is the mother of skill. It creates muscle memory, allowing automaticity to finally happen. You can’t learn to type, play golf, shoot a foul shot or move scaffolding without practice. Repetition is essential.
So, the next time your crew is having a problem, remind yourself of the power of repetition. And even if you’ve told them 20 times, assume that 20 is not enough. Take a deep breath and regroup. Then walk your crew through the process until you get to 27 times.
Remember that investing in this training isn’t a waste of time. It will pay off in spades as your team develops the right habits. It may also ensure they don’t end up at the hot dog stand!