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Lean Starts With the Need to Achieve

by Kevin Kobett
August 29, 2013

Lean Starts With the Need to Achieve

by Kevin Kobett
August 29, 2013 | Comments (5)

McClelland’s Theory of Needs contends each individual is motivated by a combination of three needs: achievement, power, and affiliation.

  • Need for achievement: People high in this need have an intense desire to succeed in meeting challenging goals. They want to get the job done quickly and well. These people may falter when a challenge is not available.
  • Need for power: People high in this need are eager to control the actions and behaviors of others.
  • Need for affiliation: People high in this need have an elevated desire to be liked and accepted. They want to work with their friends.

Visualize each employee with a cup of needs. Each person’s cup will contain all three needs to some extent. Some cups will have a large amount of one need, others will have equal amounts of all three. Some cups will have high levels of two needs and a small amount of the third. Many combinations are possible.

In a sweatshop economy, a manager with a high power need is required. In a lean environment, a leader with a high achievement need is mandatory. A sweatshop manager does not want to work with friends. A kaizen leader does, so she will have a good chunk of the affiliation need in her cup.

Here is an example of the interaction between the need to achieve and the need to exert power in an organization:

All the lab techs told lab management the pH meter was not giving accurate results. Lab management’s only response was, “It is the responsibility of each lab technician to calibrate the pH meter before use.” So most lab techs began adding extra citric acid to one of the products to get the pH in spec.

The lab supervisor and manager then assumed all the production techs had suddenly started weighing the citric acid incorrectly. They were sure all of their lab instruments worked flawlessly. A lab tech suggested that the team make a control sample in the lab to compare the production sample to and to keep each production sample to determine if the pH changed after the meter was recalibrated. The lab manager rejected these ideas. The only acceptable fix was for each lab tech to calibrate the pH meter before use.

Finally, a temporary lab tech called the pH meter manufacturer and asked for help. He learned that the probe should be washed with soap and water after every use. After the lab techs began doing this, the pH meter worked flawlessly again. No extra acid was needed.

When the plant manager became aware of the situation, lab management claimed they were never informed of any problems with the pH meter.

As you can imagine, the lab manager and supervisor had high power needs. They just wanted the job to get done and little to no interest in real problem-solving. The lab tech who called the pH meter manufacturer and the lab tech who wanted to use control samples had high achievement needs. They wanted to do the task correctly. They wanted to address the problem.

Soon after this particular incident this company embarked on their lean journey. The power brokers led the initiative, which meant the company’s transformation never really had a chance. Those with a high power need will insist again and again that everything is fine, no changes are necessary. They don’t like employees who rock the boat.

So in my experience, the first step in a lean implementation is to identify employees with an intense desire to achieve. Find those people who are already practicing lean, whether they know it or not, by being willing to see and engage with problems. To find people with a high achievement need, ask your employees for a list of prior achievements and suggestions. These are your MVPs and future kaizen leaders. They are your ticket to a successful lean journey.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  musings
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5 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban August 29, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

I think more than a "need to achieve," Lean starts with a "need to understand systems" and a "need to have leadership."

Your story about the lab techs perfectly illustrates Dr. Deming's points about quality starting in the board room. Just pressuring front-line staff or saying ridiculous things like "quality is YOUR responsibility" don't work. It also reminds me of Deming's quote about the last thing we need is everybody's best efforts.

We need leaders that help create a system where quality work can be done... and a system in which Lean thinking can flourish.

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kevin kobett August 29, 2013
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When we collect past suggestions from all employees, we ask if any of thier suggetions were accpeted. Our intent, besides identifying high achievers, is to identify lean leaders. Has one particular supervisor/manager done a great job managing innovation? If the answer is yes, we have found our change agent(s).

Change is very difficult for most people. Hence, at the beginning of a innovation initiative, everything must be simple. A company that has ignored innovation has many opportunities for improvement. They need to focus on these easy opportunities so everyone can learn the basics. Once the ball starts rolling, the need to understand systems can be presented.

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kevinkobett August 30, 2013


Never known any type of innovation iniatitive that was successful for a long period of time by a substantial number of employees (quality circles, TQM, lean). However, at my employers, a handful of employees and one team never gave up. A quailty circles program was going well for a year with about 15 to 20 teams. A bitter union contract negotitaion led to the end of the quality circles program except for one team. That team only disbanded when the plant closed 12 years later.

There has been individuals who also never gave up. Do not have an accurate number since innovation successes were never publicized. I would estimate 2 to 4% of the workforce. These are people with a high achievement need. They will seek out challenges no matter what the board of directors does. They have no choice in the matter.

According to McClelland, the best way to grow the achievement need is to tell stories of achievement. All the board has to do is agree to tell stories of achievement to their employees.

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Prasad Iyer August 30, 2013
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"Need to achieve" is to be preceded by "Capability to identify that a problem exists proactive or reactively" .

Most of the time, problem detection or issues identification is a complex process.  It comes after deep thinking around the issue.

The post was interesting to read and well documented.

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kevinkobett August 30, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment

Thanks for your comments Prasad. I agree.

You have taken the first step in your lean journey by asking each employee for a list of past achievements. The next step is to turn these past achievements into training stories. For example:

“It was Ernie’s last week of work. My retirement present was to check the rooftop thermometer for him. It was a miserable experience. The access to the roof was on the other side of the plant. The roof was dark with no clear path to the thermometer. A couple times I had to cross a waist high wall. The wind was howling, the roof was slick, and the temperature was below zero. If I had slipped and couldn’t have gotten up, no one would have found me before frostbite set in. The last obstacle was a snow drift.

Incredibly, employees have been doing this six times a day for years without complaining. A stairwell was present on the other side of the wall where the outside thermometer was located. A couple of steps and a door made checking the rooftop thermometer easy. Operators extended their breaks by fifteen minutes to check the rooftop thermometer. Since, a relief operator was needed for breaks and the new door made the long break unnecessary, the new door saved the company $6,000 per year in labor costs and it eliminated a safety hazard!”

By a wide margin, the most important lean task employees need to learn is how to identify opportunities for improvement (OI). Hence, every lean training story starts with an OI. After you read several training stories, you will notice every story starts with an irritation. The irritation could be a pH meter that does not work or walking across an expansive, slick roof in sub-zero weather. Or the irritation could come from a customer who is dissatisfied with the performance of the company’s product or service. Managers/supervisors are irritated when production numbers are not met.

Once an OI is identified, finding a solution is relatively easy, especially if all employees can brainstorm each identified irritation.

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