Employee participation in lean initiatives is something that most companies crave. Lean and continuous improvement theory teaches that shop floor personnel are powerful resources. They have the ability to explain issues, propose possible solutions and assist in changes. It is essential that they be involved in planning and implementations. Although plausible and encouraged, this phenomenon is rarely witnessed.

Many companies work for it consistently with modest results. They struggle to involve employees, sometimes even pleading for participation. Somehow, no matter how many attempts at begging occur, the low participation numbers continue and the bland kaizens keep rolling in.

This tends to discourage companies because they believe they are losing the battle, feel unsuccessful or are flat-out exhausted. This unfortunately leads to kaizen and continuous improvement becoming “a flavor of the month”. They end up in the program graveyard. The companies that have failed at lean implementation must “raise the dead”, so to speak.

I believe the root of the problem is that too many companies rely on reward programs to stimulate employee participation in lean. These programs normally reward the employee for small improvements to their area and sometimes single out a “winner of the month” or “winner of the year”. I agree that the small improvements must be applauded, but I fear that reward programs are contradictory to proper lean thinking.

Reward programs can work against the companies that are trying to engage the employees in waste elimination. Essentially, these programs produce an extrinsically motivated workforce, where in order to promote lean participation and kaizen involvement, the company is obligated to provide some sort of reward.

These reward programs are similar to a drug, meaning that in order to maintain the “high”, doses must continue periodically. In time, the dosage must increase to get the same result. This is unavoidable in the user’s life and is similar to the way a reward program will eventually operate.

If an employee is being rewarded for behavior over the course of a year and then (for some reason) does not, the activity will come to a standstill. The same is true if an employee continues to receive the same reward for activity time and again; the activity will get boring and stagnate. Reward programs encourage the “what’s in it for me” mentality, and in the long run will hurt the company culture. Employee motivation will gradually decrease and it will add cost, which is not adding value.

It is vital for a company and its lean practitioners to build a workforce that is intrinsically motivated. Companies should encourage employees to make lean decisions because it’s the right decision, not because they might get some sort of reward. Companies need the employees to not just understand lean, but to believe in it. The strength of the company is predicated on the dedication and passion of its people. A rewards program will not achieve this.

I believe that every company needs to scrap the reward programs and develop a robust career path for employees. Every employee should be trained in lean and continuous improvement. Each individual needs to understand the impact these activities have on the company as well as the impact they can have on their lives.

The advantage for employees who actively seek the education and uphold the ideals should be opportunity. Promotions should be based on the knowledge and activities of the employee. Better yet, supervisors and managers should be measured on the promotability of their people. This will motivate everyone, generate willpower, drastically increase the amount of eyes on waste, boost kaizen activity and will cost considerably less than a reward program. Not only that, but the company can mold their future leaders to the lean vision.

The basic elements of motivation are challenge, achievement, recognition, responsibility and advancement. All of these elements can be united in the design of a robust career path. Each and every job should have challenges that develop and test the skill of the employee. If the employee demonstrates increasing levels of skill, they should be given additional responsibilities which should lead to advancement within in the company. Shop floor personnel should have a wide-open door to move forward and progress both personally and professionally.

Employees are encouraged by opportunity, not material rewards (gift cards, T-shirts and the occasional free lunch). A company must have faith in their ability to train, challenge and promote. The employee must have faith that the company values them.

How does the employee know they are valued? It can be summed up in one word, investment. Encouraging personal growth is one of the most powerful fundamental acts in which a company can engage. Not only will it help the lean implementations, but it also will elevate the passion and loyalty of the employees to the company. This is tremendously important, and many managers miss the boat.

Allow the employees to row and increase the company’s momentum to the overall lean goal. If a company abandons the idea of rewards and embraces the idea of opportunity and promotability, it will become a powerful lean company. It will be one with an insightful, inspired and passion-driven workforce.

About the author:
Eric Bigelow is an industrial engineer and continuous improvement professional located in Newnan, Ga. He has trained numerous individuals in lean manufacturing, employee development and empowerment as well as managed more than 45 major lean missions. Contact him via e-mail at eric.machead@gmail.com.