You CAN motivate me.

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

“My job is pretty prescriptive. I know I have so many parts to complete on the production line and you’ve given me the tools, training and autonomy to do that. So I appreciate the thought that if I reach a stretch goal for production you will reward me with a bit of a bonus in my paycheck. Not every time, every day, but for special projects, recognizing my extra efforts is appreciated.”

Leading companies have figured out that there are places where the old motivation techniques might still be “okay.” If, for example, a particular task is routine, then perhaps a “one-time” reward, bonus or other perk might gain some momentum and get everyone working toward a goal. According to Daniel Pink, in his latest book, Drive, there are three things we can do to mitigate the negative “intrinsic de-motivators” surrounding bonuses or rewards for achieving a task. They are:

  • Offer a rational why the task is necessary

    Giving workers autonomy to do their job.

  • Acknowledge that the task is boring
  • Allow people to complete the task in their own way

Yet even some tasks that can be deadly boring might actually improve if we give workers the autonomy to solve the challenge or do the work in their own way. A recent NPR podcast discussed the changes that came about in how the NUMMI  workforce viewed themselves and how management viewed the workers once they studied manufacturing techniques of the Japanese auto manufacturers. This joint venture between Toyota and General Motors has since been abandoned, mainly, in my view, because workers and management could not keep from negotiating overly generous contracts with the workforce.

Despite its eventual failure, the NUMMI plant demonstrated exactly what we need to learn, embrace and implement: Workers are more productive when they have more autonomy to do their best work.

Learning the Toyota way

By 1982, GM had had enough and put the Fremont factory out of its misery, Two years later, GM and Toyota reopened the factory with — incredibly — most of the same workforce.

The United Auto Workers’ Bruce Lee helped oversee the transformation of the plant from one of the worst under General Motors to one of the best in America.

But first, they sent some of them to Japan to learn the Toyota way.The key to the Toyota Production System was a principle so basic, it sounds like an empty management slogan: Teamwork.

At Toyota, people were divided into teams of just four or five and they switched jobs every few hours to relieve the monotony. A team leader would step in to help when anything went wrong.

At the old GM plant in Fremont, Calif., the system had been totally different and there was one cardinal rule that everyone knew: the assembly line could never stop.

“You just didn’t see the line stop,” Rick Madrid said. “I saw a guy fall in the pit and they didn’t stop the line.”

Lee, the supervisor who oversaw the plant summed it up this way: “You saw a problem, you stopped that line: you were fired.”

Defects Along The Line

As a result, vehicles at the plant had lots of defects. Haggerty saw all kinds of mistakes go right down the line.

“So we had Monte Carlos with Regal front ends and vice versa,” he recalled. There were cars with engines put in backwards, cars without steering wheels or brakes. Workers fixed them later in a yard outside — sometimes doing more damage to the vehicles.

At the NUMMI plant you can see Toyota’s solution to this — a thin nylon rope that hangs on hooks along the assembly line. It’s called the andon cord and when pulled, it will stop the line.

One Bolt Changed My Attitude’

The first pull summons a team leader. Workers try to correct the problem on the line. If it takes too long to fix, the line stops. The andon cord also plays a surprisingly cheerful little song that workers can chose. For longtime GM workers who switched to the NUMMI system, all this was a revelation.

When Madrid trained in Japan, he saw workers stop the line to fix a bolt.

“That impressed me,” he said. “I said, ‘Gee that makes sense.’ Fix it now so you don’t have to go through all this stuff. That’s when it dawned on me. We can do it. One bolt. One bolt changed my attitude.” (NPR report)

The simple solution of entrusting the workers with the ability to stop the line to make sure quality product was in fact produced was something beyond our US management’s view. They did not believe that people could be trusted.  Instead, their belief was that if the workers could slow the line down, they would. But the workers themselves wouldn’t let coworkers slow things down unnecessarily. The plant won accolades for quality during its run.

So the question is: What are you doing to begin moving your business model to the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)? Are you giving your workers more autonomy? Are you still trying the old, largely ineffective, methods of “carrot and stick” bonus programs?