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 Mann said in a recent issue of this newsletter, “most people come to work wanting to do a good job.” (See “Servant Leadership in a Lean Organization” Operational Excellence Newsletter, Issue #12.) 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.” Perhaps we need to take a deeper look at the nature of “engagement.”
The worker as craftsman
In his book The Craftsman (Yale University Press, 2008) sociologist Richard Sennett describes the work of a dedicated carpenter, lab technician, or conductor: “Theirs is practical activity, but their labor is not simply a means to another end.”
In fact, he says, “The craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged.” (p. 20) That is, he or she performs skilled work well for its own sake. Craftsmanship affords emotional rewards: it anchors people in a “tangible reality” (I can see, hear, touch, understand, adapt, and affect my work), and it yields a result in which people can take pride.
That’s our aim in our companies, institutions, and organizations. So how do we invoke that spirit across communities of employees? Sennett describes the two basic formulas the modern world has used to try to motivate people “to work hard and well.” (p. 28) Both should sound familiar:
- The first way is through the promotion of a “moral imperative to do work for the sake of the community.” Do well for the good of the company and its customers. Do well because it’s the right thing to do.
- The second is through competition. This way “supposes that competing against others stimulates the desire to perform well.” It “promises individual rewards” rather than “communal cohesion.” Do well so that you’ll beat out others to win that extra bonus or promotion.
Both ways can play a role in the balancing act of motivating communities of people; but taken on their own, each is fundamentally flawed and can hinder improvement. Simply exhorting people to work hard and do better without a system designed to support those mandates is not a reliable or sustainable recipe for engagement or success. (Remember Deming’s caution to eliminate slogans and exhortations.) And setting up coworkers or internal teams as competitors encourages them to hoard information and to optimize work for their own position, department, or team, which leads to sub-optimizing the big picture.
Characteristics of craft work
In organizations where a kind of “institutional craftsmanship” exists, Sennett observes certain characteristics that resonate with lean thinking and continuous improvement:
- People work with a daily “experimental rhythm of problem solving and problem finding,” a natural fluidity that builds individual and community skills, accelerates results, and is continually evolving (p. 26).
- There is a kind of impersonality about doing quality work that “turns people outward.” (p. 27)
- That outward-facing perspective is supported by a culture in which people trust that they can speak frankly to one another, both across and between hierarchical levels. “When Deming spoke of ‘collective craftsmanship’,” Sennett writes, “he meant that the glue binding an institution is created by sharp mutual exchanges as much as by shared commitment.” (p. 31)
- There’s a balance between allowing time for “bedding-in” on the one hand– that is, time for people to internalize new behaviors, skills, policies, and procedures as “tacit knowledge”—and pressing ahead with rational analysis and change. Sennett calls it a “dialogue between tacit knowledge and explicit critique. When an institution…doesn’t allow the tacit anchor to develop, the motor of judgment stalls. People have no experience to judge, just a set of abstract propositions about good-quality work.” (p. 50)
These characteristics are integral to lean thinking and the Toyota Production System (TPS).
Lean as a system of “institutional craftsmanship”
In his book Just-In-Time for Today and Tomorrow (Productivity Press, 1988), published exactly 20 years before Sennett’s, Taiichi Ohno provides clues to how TPS embodies institutional craftsmanship.
Quoting a passage from his earlier book, Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production, he writes:
- Using the analogy of a baseball team, autonomation [one pillar of TPS] corresponds to the skill and talent of individual players while just-in-time [the other pillar of TPS] is the teamwork involved in reaching an agreedupon objective.
- A strong baseball team has mastered the plays; it can meet any situation with coordinated action. In manufacturing, the production team that has mastered the just-in-time system is exactly like a baseball team that plays well together.
- In the autonomated system, visual control, or “management by sight,” can help bring production weaknesses—in each player, that is—to the surface. This allows us then to take measures to strengthen the players involved. (p. 34)
We see the outward-facing perspective—the mastery of coordinated plays that respond to “any situation”; the transparency that brings weaknesses to light so that individuals and discrete segments of a process can be developed; and the interplay within the system that makes it work.
Ohno extends the baseball analogy to describe the way that TPS integrates teamwork as part of the system: “A championship team combines good teamwork with individual skill. Likewise, a production line where just-in-time and autonomation work together is stronger than other lines. Its power is in the synergy of these two factors.”
He rejects competition as the basis for motivation: “To develop teamwork, the competition between players must be eliminated and a spirit of mutual cooperation created. The Toyota system endeavors to instill a team atmosphere naturally by having workers develop skills in several areas.” (p. 35) The team works together in a natural flow of problem-solving to improve its ability and each individual’s ability to make the plays needed. In order to do that, the players must have internalized their knowledge; it must have become tacit knowledge. That only comes through repeated practice.
The role of the gemba walk
For Ohno, being in the gemba (the actual workplace), was a core principle that drove the evolution of skills and connected leaders to the real work and the real state of affairs. Lean practitioners now talk about “gemba walks” and “leader standard work.”
Back when Ohno was writing, the idea of going to the gemba was put forth by Tom Peters as “management by walking around” (MBWA). In writing about MBWA, Ohno sheds light that helps connect the dots between gemba walks, visual management, and engagement:
- Talking about it is easy—but it is actually difficult to “wander” effectively around the workplace. A manager wandering aimlessly can only bring about more negative results than positive ones. This disturbs people in the workplace and interferes with the work flow.
- For the manager wandering around the workplace, signs, charts, data, and standards that accurately measure current workplace conditions are indispensable. Although it is important to converse with the people working in the workplace, visual indicators are more desirable. (p. 81)
- [T]he objective of MBWA is to establish our own checkpoints. If… standards are posted around the production plant, MBWA effectiveness will increase dramatically. The group, applying such standards from top to bottom, will become extremely responsive and develop a common awareness towards work.” (pp. 97-98)
We see again the impersonality of standards, the importance of talking about the work, and the greater importance of getting everyone to see the same thing and develop a common awareness, to maintain an outward-facing focus on the process.
Continually evolving skills
For Ohno, the tenets of the Toyota Production System were not static; they had to evolve and adapt continually. And that could not be sustained through mere imitation. He writes:
- In rejuvenating a company, there are no easy methods. The extent to which we achieve success is dictated by the degree to which management is committed to innovative change…. Another way of stating the essence of the Toyota production system is to say we are doomed to failure if we do not initiate a daily destruction of our various preconceptions. (p. xii)
- [L]eaders must not copy other companies but ultimately must develop organizational models and systems suited to their situations.” (p. 98)
That spirit of pursuing a never-ending goal and evolving is present in true craftsmanship as well. Engaging in a craft requires repetition, personal practice, commitment, and time. Sennett writes, “Craftsmen take pride most in skills that mature. This is why simple imitation is not a sustaining satisfaction; the skill has to evolve.
The slowness of craft time serves as a source of satisfaction; practice beds in, making the skill one’s own. Slow craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination—which the push for quick results cannot. Mature means long; one takes lasting ownership of the skill.” (p. 295)
And Ohno saw TPS itself as evolving from the shopfloor to a complete management system, as a craft that leaders needed to own, critique, and practice:
- I think the Toyota Production System’s success depends on the president assuming 100-percent responsibility. To implement it, we must involve the corporation and all affiliated corporations. At this point, the system is no longer just a production system, but a management system that promotes management innovation in all participating companies on all levels.
- Despite its widespread dissemination, it will not succeed without a strong critical awareness. It should always be inquiring: “What are the corporation’s objectives?” “What is the best atmosphere for the corporation?” and “What type of corporate culture should be encouraged?” Under these circumstances, mere imitation will not work. (pp. 102-103)
There’s no recipe for engagement; cultivating it takes evolving practice. But a few principles we can glean from Sennett and Ohno 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.
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