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The Challenge in Providing Challenging Work

by Mark Reich
July 2, 2013

The Challenge in Providing Challenging Work

by Mark Reich
July 2, 2013 | Comments (6)

"Millennials," writes Monique Valcour in a recent HBR piece, "want the same things from their employers that generation X and baby boomers do: challenging meaningful work; opportunities for learning, development, and advancement; support to successfully integrate work and personal life; fair treatment and competitive compensation."

Valcour reinforces lessons I have learned working as a subordinate and as a supervisor with people of all ages, backgrounds, gender, sexual orientation, race, or nationality for the past couple decades. And I've found that meaningful work (work that contributes to the mission of the organization and develops the capabilities of the team member), in fact, cuts across all things that divide us and keep us focused on what's important.

I believe that a lot of discussion about the millennials and their uniqueness is in fact a way that managers excuse themselves for not managing or leading effectively. That's why a productive approach is essential. Developing every individual, whether millennial or not, is the hardest, most important job a manager must do—it is in fact the primary value-added work of the manager. Remember, as managers, we don't do the work directly anymore, we support the work to get done.

How do we support the work to get done? The primary motivation for the majority of people is not money, promotion, or flexibility; it is the ability for each person to feel that they are performing challenging, meaningful work. That's why doling out pay raises or promotions is a short-term solution at best. Like steroids (a quick injection to boost performance), the stimulation wears off and we need another shot to keep pace. Of course people want to be compensated and recognized for their efforts, but these are not the primary motivators for most people.

Management of every organization must ask the question: how can I create sustainable strong capability and motivation for the organization through the development of each team member's capability? I've had the opportunity to be mentored by many people in my career and have come to see this as a process of continuous improvement. My TPS/lean background is focused on integration: solving a business problem while (and through) strengthening the capability of each unique individual.

The continuous improvement structure I learned informs an approach to developing meaningful work and individual development. Let me break it down into a few major steps with some sub-steps.

Step 1 – Setting the assignment

a. Background, or the "why" behind the individual development. What is the broader organizational issue or business need we are trying to address?

b. Current Situation. What are the details of the current situation of the specific problem I am asking the team member to solve? I must understand that deeply. This is different than just giving someone an assignment that they must figure out. It is intentional and deliberate based on the business problem to be solved. Also, what is the current situation regarding the capability and motivation level of this individual? Can we successfully integrate these two by choosing an assignment that furthers the objectives of the organization and develops the team member's capabilities?

c. What is my target situation for the business problem and the team member's development? I must understand what are the specific steps for improvement to the business problem. Also, what is the target for the development of the individual?

d. What is the gap between the current situation and target situation? Both for the business problem and with regard to the the team member's capability.

Step 2 - Doing the Assignment

Plan and actions to address the business problem and develop the individual: How do I motivate the team member to take on this challenge and own the business problem? What is my plan for mentoring to ensure the team member learns through this experience? Not to give answers, but to ask the right questions. How do I coach them as they encounter struggles?

Step 3 – Confirming the Result

What were the business and development results the team member was able to achieve? If the results were achieved, why? If not, why not? How could I have better coached this individual through this problem?

Successful navigation of steps 1 through 3 requires that there be some sense of trust between the manager and team member that this is journey worth taking together. There will be situations during the assignment where the team member may struggle. Does the team member trust the manager that this is in his/her best interest?

As Ms. Valcour says, the ideal leader is "a person who leads by example, is accessible, acts as a coach and mentor, helps employees see how their roles contribute to the organization and challenges and holds them accountable." What I've shared in the steps above always provided a basic framework for me of how to provide leadership and mentoring through actually engaging in the work. Confirming the "why" before each assignment allows the team member to see how they contribute to the organization.

We can see that the manager plays a critical role. What about the team member? Perhaps that's the topic of another post.

For more guidance on coaching and capability development, join lean community members at the 2013 Lean Coaching Summit, July 23-24, in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  leadership,  management
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
D July 02, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment
I am pretty sure this article has been written about every generation.   Leadership is not hard but it is work...you must explain what you want, why it is important, teach the job, and manage expectations.   You don't have to target development for people...simply put them in a task that is uncomfortable and apply heat and pressure and lots and lots of feedback.

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Matt July 02, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this reply
I agree that people need to step outside of their comfort zones to develop.  But I'd argue that these assignments should be ~20-30% of their time; the rest should be focused on leveraging their strengths.  Otherwise you risk excessive frustration, burn-out, and possibly losing the person as they move to a role that allows them to leverages their core strengths.

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Joe Schmidt July 03, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Spot-On Mark!  What we as Lean Leaders tend to forget is that we are coaching, teaching and mentoring both "Down" and "Up" the organizational structure.  Mark's topic is what I teach to the Top Leadership of an organization, and we all should.  Without this understanding, practical experience and learning curve of leading with PDCA principles any Lean transformation effort will not be effective.  Learning to teach this in a tactical and a strategic way of application and understanding is key.

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kevin kobett July 25, 2013

Your employer gives you a choice of training classes. The first class will teach you how to be the next Steve Jobs or Michael Dell. The second class teaches you how to be a better employee. Which class would you attend?


This is a trick question. There is only one class. The skills companies want their employees to learn are the same skills entrepreneurs use. An example may clarify this.


The bag of dog food had four different shapes. To get this shape the uncooked dog food is forced through a steel tube called an extruder. A die plate at the end of the extruder forms the shape, a cutter yields the individual pieces. These shapes could only be produced one shape at a time. Each shape went to a separate silo and were mixed before packaging. It was an expensive to set up and was prone to mixing errors.


Finally, someone suggested splitting the extruder into four streams and making four pieces together. The product could go straight from the extruder to the packaging.


The company received a patent for this new process. The employee who devised this procedure was listed as the inventor on the patent. The company licensed this procedure to other manufacturers and received royalties from their competitors.


If a non-employee thought of this new process, he or she could get a patent and receive the royalties.


I was always the trouble maker. Always changing things. Never satisfied. Bosses thought I made improvements only to make them look bad. I did it because it was fun and challenging. Never received a thank you or a pat on the back.


Finally, I realized I could improve products/processes off the job. My royalties will start soon.


Do not try to train and motivate your employees. Train and motivate the future entrepreneurs and inventors who work for you.



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Hollie Jensen August 16, 2013
Thank you for sharing what I hope many leaders will come to understand. Teaching and coaching are your primary jobs as the "leader" and this framework can make that work more intentional.  It won't just happen, it has to be intentional. 

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Mark Reich August 20, 2013
Great comment Hollie. I couldn't agree more. And to me intentional means, as Manager I must think through what is the target state for this person's development? What skills need strengthening? How will this assignment motivate them? How do I need to coach them? All should be clear, wouldn't you agree?

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