Workplace Motivation in Continuous Improvement Activity

By Angela M. Corriero

Article Summary: Workplace motivation is not often taken into consideration when planning and developing continuous improvement frameworks.  This is unfortunate as all the great Toyota leaders in Japan I have been associated with have always enforced the necessity of a highly motivated and engaged work force to ensure the success of their endeavors.  In this article, I address some key points of consideration when planning out a continuous improvement strategy.

Workplace Motivation Makes or Breaks Innovation

Creating a corporate culture based on quality and efficiency is a daunting task that can lead to frustrations rather than a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. Continuous process improvement and transformation is key to our success and innovation but the question is how do we, as leaders, inspire and structure employee participation in improvement activities?

Managers can easily become swayed and distracted by Lean/Six Sigma tools and analysis that, although good in principle and certainly have their place, do not incite staff to actually engage in improvement and efficiency initiatives. A lack of workforce motivation in any improvement activity is a serious threat to positive and sustainable outcomes.  I have seen it time and time again, companies employ external consultants to conduct Value Stream Maps, analyze processes, develop process improvement plans, under the rational assumption that, by investing in process analysis, they will achieve efficiency targets. Ummmm….we seemed to have missed one fact: The absolute key to successful continuous improvement is participation of the entire workforce – not of external consultants who conduct an analysis of your efficiency rates and then instruct you on what to do. Oh and by the way, they are the same consultants that you re-hire when your organization has another problem or needs another analysis done.  Who`s gaining here?  True lean, a.k.a, continuous improvement, was developed as a means for Toyota to be able to resolve their own challenges and create innovative solutions internally.

Harnessing internal know-how by engaging staff in problem solving and improvement activities is one of the fundamental reasons why Toyota and affiliated companies are so successful. They created a culture and mind set of improvement.  Continuous process improvement is not a tool at Toyota, it is simply part of good management.

Why Command and Control Leadership Styles won`t Work

Some managers continue to hold the view that staff should do what they are told because companies pay their salaries. This view is also a serious threat to the achievement of quality improvement and innovation targets. Toyota, like many other companies were very command and control in the past and struggled with quality and delivery problems accordingly.  Click here to get an overview of Toyota`s management style evolution. 

Here`s an alternate view: technically the customer is paying their salaries, the customer is the one we need to satisfy and there would be no job to come to if it weren`t for the customer.

By focusing on the customer, managers can engage their staff more readily with problem solving and targets focused on satisfaying customers rather than trying to assume a command and control approach which only sparks resistance and an us-them attitude between management and staff. Why not put management and staff on the same team and try to exceed customer expectations in a cooperative and collaborative manner? Shifting workplace motivation is often a matter of reframing how we communicate with our staff and engage them in the problem solving process.

Why Collaborative Leadership is so Difficult

I have observed, globally, something that is difficult to address:  Staff are dying for collaboration and engagement. They really really want to be a part of creating solutions and improvement.  Unfortunately, it is often management that squelch their enthusiasm. Yes, supervisors and managers, I am talking to you.  You have the power to harness your staff and propel your organization to new heights – by considering a more collaborative and motivational approach rather than the command and control practices that have been the norm since before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. 

Setting targets and engaging your team to contribute to developing action plans and agreeing to the value of improvement projects (as opposed to being told what and how to improve) will make your job, as a leader, a lot easier and help ensure workplace motivation remains high.  I am not saying to give up your authority.  I am saying, take on a collaborative approach and multiply your impact.  Listen to your people, take on their appropriate suggestions, channel your team towards achieving set targets – don`t command them; don`t attempt to control them and order them around.  Have high standards of work performance but allow them a sense of autonomy. Of course, ensuring your team is accountable for their actions and results is an essential role for leadership. It is easy for any person or team to lose momentum, get distracted or become overwhelmed.  Ensuring that your team is achieving improvement targets and following through with plans is a vital component of your leadership role. Management by walking around is a powerful practice – when it `s done with employee respect and engagement in mind. Mr. Yamauchi, fmr Managing Director of Toyota Motor Corporation often talked about his time as plant manager.  He would come in an hour early every day to walk around the plant, greet his staff and discuss both personal and professional matters with front line staff, team leaders and supervisors. His positive relationship building is what he credits as having ensured the success of plant operations; and ultimately the success of him as a leader.

What a Collaborative Approach Looks Like in a Continuous Improvement Culture

1)  Challenge the Status Quo 

Fundamentally, improvement activity challenges the current operating style of the company.  Continuous Improvement is a conscious and informative change to what is currently practiced with the goal of operational efficiency in mind.  Who is most able to offer improvement advice for a particular job function?  The staff member performing the procedure of course!  How can a manager or an external consultant, be expected to expertly improve the procedures of the entire workforce?  No. Engage the staff on improving their own procedures with efficiency as the target.  Appropriate application of continuous improvement activity is engagement of staff in the appropriate change of the status quo with smooth flow of operations in mind.  Don`t be alarmed, I`m not advocating anarchy and chaos. Continuous improvement is about relevant and small changes to a work function that serves to improve smooth functioning of their duties and minimize errors passed on to the next process/procedure.

2)   Walk Your Talk

There is no greater motivation killer than a leader not walking their talk. If you believe in improvement, change and collaboration, show it and do it.  There should not be an expectation of perfection of anyone (as this is impossible and will lead to disappointment) but we should all strive to be the best we can.  Mistakes will happen and errors will occur.  The key point of continuous improvement is take these mistakes and errors as an opportunity to identify their cause and eliminate the chance of reoccurrence.  And if the error reoccurs?  Back to the drawing board: identify its cause and take action to eliminate the possibility of recurrence.  Walking your talk is not about being a shining example of perfection. It is about demonstrating your commitment to becoming better and better at what you do and who you are.


3)   Engage Yourself in Your Team`s Activities

Show an interest in your team`s continuous improvement activities. Congratulate them on their successes, keep the momentum alive and avoid criticizing.

A long time ago, a mentor of mine gave this recommendation:  Make people shine.  The key to his success (which he has had a lot of)  has been to make others successful.  By raising your team to higher and higher standards of work performance, you will be more successful than any person who only tries to succeed based on his or her own individual efforts.  Taking an interest in your people`s improvement efforts and initiatives serves to keep the workplace positive and conducive to change.

“It is better to clarify facts and prevent recurrence of mistakes than to criticze and reprimand”, Masao Neomoto, fmr President of Toyoda Gosei and TQC master, always said.  The key reason is quite simply to allow your employees the space to come to you when they have made an error rather than trying to cover mistakes up.  People are not perfect.  They, just like you, are bound to make mistakes.  It is a statistical certainty that errors will occur.  So do you want them handled or swept under the rug?  Listen to me here….You cannot command your team to expose their mistakes.  You must create a supportive environment where they feel safe to discuss their errors and work towards corrective action and prevention of recurrence.  This is the reality behind efficiency theory. Humans are not motivated by efficiency and perfection targets and do not function as computers or robots.  They must be treated as human beings and valued as an integral part of continuous improvement activities.

For more advice on Workforce Motivation from Mr. Yasuhito Yamauchi, fmr Managing Director of Toyota Motor Corporation, click here.

Return from Workplace Motivation to Lean 5S

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