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How Do I Keep My Lean Team Motivated for the Long Term?

4/5/2010
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Dear Gemba Coach,


At the company where I am production manager, we've done lean for nearly three years. But my team is running into a real challenge when it comes to motivation. My team often feels that they are alone in their improvement efforts. Even after all our work we continue to encounter resistance from other functions of the company, who do not see the value of our lean efforts. So how do I maintain the motivation of my team?


Thank you for this question. Your challenge is unfortunately a very common problem at the Gemba. That's because some of the very goals that you seek with kaizen will in fact produce intractable problems over the long term. Keep in mind that kaizen reveals the things we do wrong, the things we don't do (and probably should), and the problems we have with partners (suppliers or other functions). There's no reason to believe that confronting these matters regularly won't at some point discourage the folks doing the work.


Lean work presents challenges to our commonly held assumptions about motivation. Motivation is usually seen as a problem of getting people to show up in the morning and work diligently through the day. In lean, motivational issues are more complex. First of all, there's the challenge of convincing people to look at what they are doing wrong, accept that they are doing it wrong, and then find a way to do it right. This must happen while keeping people enthused about trying things they've not done before and experimenting with daily changes in order to sustain continuous improvement (another significant challenge from a motivation perspective.) Finally, lean leaders must finesse the motivational challenges of teamwork- of getting the different functions to solve problems together, particularly when the other side doesn't want to play ball.


Grappling with these challenges calls for the second pillar of lean management, "Respect." Much has been written on the first pillar of "Continuous Improvement," but the second often remains nebulous. Most managers are more comfortable and better skilled with practices such as go and see, challenge, and kaizen. Yet this second pillar is essential to successfully leaning processes. Respect, in lean terms, has two main aspects. The first one is fostering mutual trust through engaging every employee in their work with the company. The second is developing individuals through teamwork so that each can reach their full potential and actively participate in running and improving their own workshops.


Because respect rarely develops by itself in most work cultures, leadership is essential. As a leader you must demonstrate respect, particularly by creating a work atmosphere where problems are viewed as sources of progress, where difficulties can be shared openly and taken earnestly, and where failure due to experimentation is actually seen positively rather than frowned upon. Leadership usually accounts for a large part of the motivational problem - but what about the people themselves? Why would they want to participate? What are the drivers to their motivation?


On that front, I would recommend a great read: Drive is Dan Pink's inspiring book on what he calls "Motivation 3.0" - upgrading our operating system about motivation. The author's main point is that our naïve notions about what motivates people (carrot-and-stick pay-for-performance systems) are completely out of step with what science says really motivates folk on the Gemba. Motivation 3.0 is particularly relevant to lean because it's motivation through engagement. The three key dimensions of this motivational system are: autonomy, mastery and purpose.



  • Autonomy recognizes the need for individuals to have some degree of control over what they do, when they do it, who they do it with, and how they do it. In tightly-organized industrial environments, this appears to contradict all the control systems in place and to a large extent it does -but that's precisely what kaizen is about. Starting from a basis of stable teams and standardized work, kaizen is about giving operators autonomy to change their work environment and their processes for the better - and thus realize more control over their own work. The andon system, for instance, gives a very large amount of control to the individual worker over the entire chain. This is an essential part of lean management which requires careful nurturing and constant leadership to develop as it should.



  • Mastery is about the inborn drive to become better at what we do. Most of our organizations emphasize compliance over competence, an approach that kills engagement and kaizen every time. Mastery is about seeing your own abilities not as finite but as infinitely improvable. This is the root of the kaizen spirit (even a dry towel can give a drop of water if you put your mind to it), and this what people find so rewarding in kaizen if it's encouraged. A key element of mastery is defining every work situation as a challenge and creating immediate feedback on how well we're doing (through visual management). The next step is actively supporting people through training and coaching to demonstrate that the challenge can be successfully achieved. A day of clear, interesting challenges will both build up individual competence and enjoyment of work, the keys to engagement. At middle-management level, A3 management as brilliantly taught by John Shook in Managing to Learn is the main tool to develop mastery amongst managers.



  • Purpose is a strong need in most of us: we want to participate to something bigger, more enduring than our day to day. A key aspect of Respect is to work hard at sharing the objectives of the company with every employee so that they understand the larger picture and see how 1) the firm contributes to society and 2) they contribute through their work. In lean, the link between Gemba visual management and high-level challenges through hoshin kanri, as skillfully described by Pascal Dennis in Getting The Right Things Done is the fundamental tool to encourage a sense of purpose throughout the business.


Within lean management, teamwork is a further aspect of engaging individuals by getting them to build strong relationships across steps in the process, staff functions and with suppliers. As Dr. Ishikawa once famously noted: the coworkers in the next step of the process are not our enemies, they are our customer. Just after WWII, social psychologist Kurt Lewin showed that the most effective way to get people to change their attitudes and behavior was to have them participate in regular group session where they can freely express their feelings and experiences with the change. This opened the door to understanding the importance of the team in sustaining individual motivation, individual change and collective change.


Teamwork and the importance of team is an essential part of lean management, best discussed by Terry Besser in Team Toyota. Belonging to a team is an essential part of people's motivation, and so is having good relations with other members of the organization. To foster this, it is key to create platforms for teamwork where people come together to solve problems jointly, from the production team's five minute standup meeting, to a weekly production planning session involving the managers of all key functions. Ultimately, the entire firm is seen as a team.


Two wings are necessary to fly, two legs to run: hopping on one foot will sooner or later end with falling flat on one's face. Respect is just as important as continuous improvement, not the least because it holds the key to continued motivation in the face of setbacks and resistance. Problems are the source of continuous improvement, but people must acknowledge these problems day in day out, and find the continued resilience to solve them - indeed, learn to enjoy it. Problems are not something that keeps you from your "real" job. Problem solving is the job.


In lean terms, the three keys to motivation are leadership, engagement and teamwork:



  • Leadership is about relentlessly demonstrating the kaizen spirit in facing problems, encouraging kaizen and valorizing good failures (good ideas that didn't work) as much as successes. Leadership means taking care of people and taking their problems seriously and looking earnestly for ways to help them resolve them. Empowerment in lean terms is about teaching people to solve their own problems.

  • Engaging people means creating the kind of working environment where they have daily opportunities to exercise their autonomy, improve their mastery of their job and feel that they belong to a greater project. Go and see, challenge and kaizen have to be practiced daily in the spirit of engagement.

  • Teamwork is fostered by organizing platforms to solve problems together - collective Problem solving is the key to developing positive relationships at work through accepting mutual responsibility of problems and growing mutual trust.

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