Operational excellence, continuous improvement, lean management—no matter what you call your pursuit of perfection, in order to sustain it employees have to be “engaged.
” You hear it all the time—“we need to get everyone engaged in problem solving … to make them accountable for improving … to motivate them to work together.”
But aren’t people naturally motivated? As organizational psychologist David Mann¹ said in a recent issue of the Operational Excellence newsletter, “most people come to work wanting to do a good job.” (See “Servant Leadership in a Lean Organization” Operational Excellence, Issue 2014-2, p. 4.) Why, then, is true companywide “engagement” elusive? The problem is that organizations often impede the natural motivation of individuals. “It’s an organization’s responsibility,” as Mann said, “to remove the barriers it has imposed—almost always unintentionally—to people’s ability to express their motivation and to do a better job.”
There’s no recipe for engagement; cultivating it takes evolving practice. But a few principles we can glean from Richard Sennett² and Taiichi Ohno³ provide some guidance:
- Believe in the natural motivation of people, even if current evidence points to the contrary in your company. As Ohno said, when humans have “a problem to solve or a target to reach, the larger or more difficult it is, the harder they try. The human imagination is a strange thing.” (p. 21)
- Make every effort not to separate “hands and heads”; that connection is vital to engagement. People need to be able to see their work in context and have the ability to affect it.
- For people to take “ownership” of their work and of changing processes, allow time to digest and internalize new methods as tacit knowledge. And encourage frank conversations about what people see, with the focus on outward-facing goals and processes (not on finger-pointing).
- Make finding and solving problems an integral part of daily work, not a task relegated only to organized kaizen or other improvement “projects.”
- Think of standard work as a way of capturing and disseminating what’s become tacit knowledge; it’s also the basis for the improvement “dialogue” of explicit analysis and critique.
- Recognize the true value of leader standard work and going to the gemba as an inherent part of the system, and practice it to internalize how it integrates with a process focus.
¹David Mann is an organization psychologist and lean consultant. He developed and applied the concepts of the Lean Management System while on staff with Steelcase, Inc. He is the author of the Shingo Prize winning book Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions (Productivity Press, 2005, 2010).
² Richard Sennett is the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. He is the author of several books including The Craftsman (Yale University Press, 2008)
³ Taiichi Ohno was a Japanese businessman. He is considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System, which became Lean Manufacturing in the U.S. He is the author of several books including Just-In-Time for Today and Tomorrow (Productivity Press, 1988)