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Establishing Standards: How Using Incentives Helps

Many years ago, when I was a lieutenant in the Army, I was responsible for a motor pool—a military word for a glorified lot where the unit parked its forty trucks when they weren’t in use.

Every Friday afternoon, my sergeants and I managed the cleanup of the motor pool. As I am sure you can imagine, the 18 and 19 year old soldiers were ready to start their weekend. They were less than enthusiastic about pushing brooms and picking up trash. Despite them being a great group of soldiers, they needed some close supervision to make sure they met the standard by quittin’ time.

That is, until someone came up with a stroke of genius. We decided to let the soldiers go as soon as the motor pool passed an inspection.

The first time we tried this, we ran into a problem that you might expect. ‘Clean’ meant one thing to me as the person responsible for the area and something else entirely to a teenager who was trying to get off work for a night on the town. So, we quickly set about establishing standards and making up a clear list of expectations about what ‘clean’ meant.

Very quickly, the motor pool started meeting the standard in less time.  Eventually, on their own, this team of soldiers helped each other out and started using their free time during the week to get the motor pool spotless. Pretty soon, we were not doing any cleanup at all on Fridays, because it was kept clean all week long. 

We, as the leaders, got the necessary result and the soldiers got something very desirable as well.  Everybody won.

How does this story apply to establishing standards in Lean?  Well, what if managers used some innovative thought in how they approached improvement targets? For example, let’s say a team made 10 go-carts a day in January, with a target of getting that up to 12 by the end of the year. In a traditional model, leadership might have a challenge trying to sell the idea that each person had to be more productive. In an incentive model, if the team knew that soon as they got to 12 a day they could go home early, I’d bet that the target would be reached well before December. Of course, the team would start with a new baseline the following January, and have another new improvement target.

There would certainly be some specific issues to address. You’d have to figure out who was eligible (i.e. what about the engineering team, or the materials team?) and answer a bunch of legal questions. You’d also have to set the rules about quality, backsliding, how it applies to a new hire brought on the team late in the year, and a bunch of other things. But, those are all just details to be worked out.

The point is that people always work harder and are more creative at problem solving if they have something to gain too. And they are more committed to following established standards if they see some of the benefit on a personal level.

Do you have experience with incentives?  How well has it worked in your area?


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