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By Carl Binder, CPT, PhD

The field of Human Performance Technology (HPT), also known as Human Performance Improvement (HPI), evolved from programmed instruction and early research and development in instructional design. The original professional “home” of programmed instruction researchers and designers was NSPI, the National Society for Programmed Instruction, which later morphed into the National Society for Performance and Instruction, and ultimately into the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).  Early instructional designers used terms such as “instructional systems” to indicate the systemic and holistic design approach they took to creating effective instructional programs and materials. They sought to optimize ­overall cost-effectiveness and efficiency of the teaching programs they designed.

One of my earliest mentors in the field of performance improvement and a pioneer in the field, Dr. Donald Tosti, once explained that performance improvement in the early days also took a design engineering approach to performance in organizations, following the approach established in programmed instruction. It attempted to look at the entire performance system operating in an organization, a business unit, a department, or even in a process, and to optimize its overall impact.  The term performance engineering, popularized in part by Thomas F. Gilbert’s (1978) book, Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, highlights Tosti’s emphasis on design engineering.  Gilbert defined the worth of a performance intervention as the value of the accomplishments it increases or produces divided by the cost of the behavior for producing the accomplishments. This clearly reflected a systemic design optimization approach to performance.

Tosti further explained that with the emergence of the quality movement and process improvement, performance improvement focus shifted toward reducing or eliminating defects. Focus on defects leads to root cause analysis that attempts to identify the cause or causes of defects followed by action steps to reduce defects. I’ve always thought of this as plugging the hole in the metaphorical dam rather than re-designing the dam so that it would not spring leaks. The language of gap analysis became prominent in the transition to performance improvement as problem-solving. These days, performance improvement is often assumed to be a problem-solving endeavor, not a design optimization discipline.

In my own work, rooted in Tom Gilbert’s focus on accomplishments and his Behavior Engineering Model, we emphasize a design optimization, or design engineering approach to performance improvement. Rather than seeking root causes, our Performance Thinking logic and tools seek to identify a full array of behavior influences that obstruct desired performance, as well as those that support or enable it (assuming we’re addressing existing performance).  We generate options and select a combination of interventions intended to be optimally cost-effective and integrated, to maximize valuable accomplishments while minimizing cost and strengthening employee engagement. In short, we apply a design engineering logic and tool set to human performance.

In recent years, Design Thinking has become a thing, widely discussed and promoted in many contexts. It is credited for innovation, and has been a theme for many books and periodicals.  Everyone seems to be talking about it, although there are widely varying descriptions, prescriptions and approaches.  Our long-time colleague, Surya Vanka, formerly Director of User Experience at Microsoft, has demonstrated the capacity to produce “innovation on demand” with a well-defined process and tools in what he describes as “design swarms.” A design swarm is a group process intended to produce disruptive innovation, solutions that are outside the box and likely to be successful. 

After experiencing Surya’s work in person, I was excited to see the parallels between design thinking and our plain English methodology known as Six Boxes Performance Thinking. If we combine the systematic, reproducible tools of Surya’s models and methods with performance improvement methods and tools, it should be possible to design business and societal solutions that are innovative, and to implement and sustain them using performance improvement methods. That’s quite an exciting marriage of two systematic and systemic approaches!

The overall program for next June’s 10th Annual Six Boxes® Summer Instituteis emerging, and will combine Performance Thinking workshops and presentations with an all-day Disruptive Innovation workshop led by Surya Vanka. The Institute will give us a close-up view and a laboratory for developing a combination of Design Thinking + Performance Engineering with huge potential for future applications.

If we view our field of performance improvement as a design engineering discipline, not merely a problem-solving methodology, the future possibilities for innovative applications and optimization seem nearly endless.


Binder, C. (1998). The Six Boxes: A Descendent of Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model.  Performance Improvement, 48-52. 

Gilbert, T. F. (1978). Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tosti, D. (1997). Human Performance System Analysis. The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.


Dr. Carl Binder is CEO of The Performance Thinking Network, LLC.  He received ISPI's Thomas F. Gilbert Award and Lifetime Member Award. A thought leader, presenter at ISPI conferences since the mid 1980's, and frequent author in ISPI publications, Carl began his career as a doctoral student with B.F. Skinner and entered the field of Performance Improvement in the early 1980's. Mentored by Gilbert, Harless, and other HPT pioneers, Carl has been communicating the essentials of behavior science and performance engineering in plain English for over 40 years. Learn more about his current work at and contact him at