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Motivation (+7 Page PDF)

The word “motivation” has two distinct, though related, meanings. In the more generic definition, motivation is simply something that provides an incentive to take action. This meaning also has something of a psychological component to it, as there is a linkage between the incentive and a behavioral response.

In a more leadership-oriented meaning, motivation is a characteristic. Being motivated means that a person has the disposition to take action, or to stick with something against adversity. Motivation can be either internal or external. The term self-motivation means that a person is able to build and keep momentum up on her own. External motivation comes, obviously, from an outside source. A person’s children, his boss, great speakers, historical figures, and a host of other individuals can all inspire people to take action.

All motivation, though, is incentive oriented. External motivation can come from the desire to earn rewards such as promotions, raises, and recognition. Internal motivation comes from the feelings associated with an activity. Charity work, for example, is motivated by the positive feelings a person may get from selfless service. In both cases, actions culminate in a person getting something he or she desires.

Most self-driven people focus their motivation with some sort of personal goals, though these goals may not be explicitly stated. Externally motivated people are focused by, among other things, leaders guiding a team toward a specific task.

Lean requires the ‘stick-to-it-ness’ that motivation provides. That means leaders must be inspirational and offer incentives for a team to take action. It also means that self-motivated people are strong fits in a continuous improvement oriented company.

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Historical Examples

One of the greatest motivators of all time was John F. Kennedy. Of his many examples, two stand out. The first was in his speech “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This was a very general attempt at inspiring people to change their value system.

The second was his challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This was a far more specific attempt to motivate a team towards a precise goal. Both examples, though, were intended to inspire those around him to change their behaviors.

Usage of the Term

Motivation is a word that is frequently used with little understanding about its real meaning. ‘He/she is motivated’ has become just a way of saying a person works hard or works long hours. That simplistic view neglects half of the equation. It looks only at the behavior and not at the incentive. There is no emphasis placed on why the person is working that way. It is particularly important to understand both parts of the equation when applying the term in a continuous improvement environment.

First, ask yourself this question: Why should people follow your lead down the path of continuous improvement? It doesn’t matter what level you are, from CEO down to a front-line leader. If you are in charge of a project, you will have to ask people to do something. Depending upon how well you understand the motivation of the people on the team, you may get only what you specifically ask for, or you may get people to move mountains to get things accomplished.

The key is in understanding the incentive side of motivating people. How likely are people to make their work more efficient if they fear losing their job? They are not likely to participate much at all. The first point of motivation is that they must trust that what they are doing will benefit them. Developing a track record of this as a leader is essential if you want people to go beyond your instructions and work to exceed goals.

Second, you have to understand what makes people tick. Most like getting money in return for their time, but it is an error to assume that it is the only motivator. Some love time with their family. Some hate sitting in traffic. Some like collecting certifications and credentials. Some are after fame. Some want recognition, whether public or a simple pat on the back. Some thrive on completing challenging tasks and accomplishing tough things. The point is that people do things for a reason, but that reason is different for every person.

Here’s a little anecdote about motivation. In one organization I supported, I had an extremely hard time getting people to come back from breaks on time in one particular facility. Over time, it had developed a culture in which it was OK to be a few minutes late for meetings. Everyone on the leadership team seemed to operate like that.

During kaizens though, most people on the teams were from the production environment. They were used to the standard that when a break was over, the line started. They frontline teams were very punctual, but I could see a similar pattern develop in each project. The production people started out returning promptly, but soon tired of waiting around for the less timely members of the team. They soon went over to the ‘dark side’ and began showing up late from breaks and independent assignments.

Fortunately, the facility just happened to be in an old soundstage from a now-cancelled TV show. Because of that, it had a very restricted parking lot. The shift ended at 4:00, and to drive home, most people had to get on a highway just a few minutes away from the factory. If they left a few minutes early, they could get out of the lot faster, and beat traffic onto the highway. So, knowing that situation, I created a ‘time bank’ on the whiteboard, and started with 5 minutes.

Those 5 minutes could translate into getting home up to half an hour early. The team members could beat traffic onto the highway and get a few extra miles behind them before the traffic volume grew. I deducted time whenever anyone was late coming back from a break. At the end of the day, I let them leave early with whatever time was left in the bank. You would not believe how motivated people were to make sure the time was left in the bank at the end of the day. It cost me very little to do this, and saved a great deal of waiting time when breaks ended. The point of this story is to highlight the power of figuring out what is important to people and being creative in meeting those needs.

OK, let’s get back to the list of things to keep in mind when thinking about what motivates a team. The third thing is that the rewards must match what makes people tick. A person with a creative personality will not likely be motivated by production work, regardless of how challenging. A person who values stability will not relish changes in routines.

Finally, people must believe they will reap the benefits of their efforts. If someone is told about the path to promotion, and yet fails to get the new position when they accomplish the requirements, they are less likely to continue with extra effort. Even if the incentive is important to a person, it also has to be believable to change behaviors.

About Self-Motivation

While the term ‘self-motivated’ seems like there is no incentive involved, even self-motivated people are getting something in return for their efforts. It simply means that they are responsible for understanding the relationship between what they do and what they get for those behaviors.

For example, they may like the feeling of accomplishment when they solve a particularly challenging problem. For that reason, they may choose to take on the task of solving production issues. Similarly, think about why people are motivated to give to charities? They enjoy the feeling that they get when they donate. Or perhaps they had a disease, and want to help prevent others from getting it.

The bottom line is that there is always a reason for people’s actions.

  • Every person is motivated by a different combination of factors. One-size-fits-all solutions do not work.
  • Continuous improvement requires people who are motivated by what it offers. Not all people will thrive in a continuous improvement culture. Be careful not to hire individuals who need different types of motivators than what Lean offers. Be especially wary of those that need things that are contrary to continuous improvement (i.e. those that are de-motivated by being measured). You must also actively manage those that aren’t a good fit but are already on staff. Look to convert them or find win-win solutions to help them move on.

The only way to know what motivates your team is to know your team. That means spending a lot of time with them, and you can only do that if you are in the gemba (place where work is done) with them.

Simply asking your team about motivating factors is not enough. They will often say what they think you want to hear and will hide the things that they think will make them look bad. To have an accurate picture, you have to observe your team and get to know them individually.

You also need to understand what you can offer for each of the factors that motivate your team members. It is not enough to simply know what your team needs. You also have to know what you can offer them to meet those needs.

Finally, I want to stress the point that motivation is a key ingredient to continuous improvement. A strong business management system relies upon independent action by frontline teams. Tapping into the things that motivate them is the only way to get them acting in a way that aligns with your company’s Lean goals. If you just tell them what to do, they will likely do what you ask—after all they are motivated to keep their job. But you want more than that. You want them to see a problem and take action on their own. You want them to offer ideas and take action on them rather than wait for you to ask what they think.

Unless you figure out how to motivate them to support your continuous improvement culture, you’ll be hard pressed to have your team reach its full potential.

  • There are two sides of the motivation equation. On one side are the incentives and the other side contains behaviors.
  • Motivation is highly individual in nature. While there are many common factors, the exact combination varies from person to person. The better a leader understands an individual’s motivation, the better he can tailor his or her leadership style to the employee.
  • Motivation has a fairly generic usage, as well as a more specific meaning when applied to leadership.
  • Self-motivation is extremely helpful in a continuous improvement environment.


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