Awards And Recognition

Is Individual Recognition Hurting Your Lean Initiative?

Feb. 22, 2023
Too much emphasis on rewarding heroics can set back continuous improvement efforts.

Who and what you recognize sends a clear message to the workforce about what is important and valued in your organization.

If your recognition practices are aligned with lean principles and desired behaviors, they can be powerful enablers of lean culture. Conversely, if your recognition is not aligned, your lean strategy will suffer. The hypocrisy will be obvious, and trust will be lost.

Let’s look at two typical recognition targets and how they fall short of lean principles. We’ll also look at how each type of recognition can be approached differently to align with lean.

My hope is that this discussion will encourage you to analyze your own practices to determine whether you need a recognition realignment.

The Hero Award

The announcement of this award goes something like this:

“Welcome to the monthly all-company meeting. I’d like to start out by asking everyone to give a round of applause to Jim, who single-handedly saved the day last week by jumping through a series of hoops to get the product out the door on time. I am honored to present to Jim the Hero Award for this month! Please give it up for Jim!”             

Could there be anything wrong with publicly praising the super firefighter that somehow, someway, battled the inferno to get the product to the customer on time? That’s the least we could do, isn’t it?

To help answer that question, the first lean principle to consider is “teamwork.” We want to develop teammates that share information, effectively work together to solve problems, continually improve and help each other be successful. Therefore, we should cheer team efforts at both the work-area and cross-functional team levels. This doesn’t seem to align very well with the applause solely going to superhero Jim.

Individual honors such as these may conflict with the teamwork principle. Singular heroics are lauded, rather than collaboration and teamwork. But conversely, recognizing Jim and his whole team were recognized for their combined efforts would send a totally different and aligned message: that teamwork is valued above all.

Lean alternative: Give an individual award to a team member who is peer selected for embodying lean behaviors. This puts the decision in the hands of the team, and highlights lean behavior.

But let’s dive even deeper into Jim’s Hero Award. What was the cause of the process failure that required heroic effort? What if Jim is the supervisor who is responsible for working with his team to develop a robust standardized process, but has been lagging in this critical role?

With a robust process, the problem may not have occurred in the first place.

 While facilitating a client improvement event, I was surprised to hear a team member admit that he felt that his value to the company was his skill at meandering around the poor processes. Improved processes would have reduced his opportunity to shine.

Whether individual or team-based, give careful thought as to who you recognize. Make sure there aren’t unintended consequences.

The Big Impact Award

Announcer:“I would like to introduce a new award which we will be presenting each month. We will recognize the improvement that saved the company the most money by presenting the Big Impact Award.   

Now surely there can’t be anything wrong with this? But, like with the Hero Award, we need to dig a little deeper and question exactly what is being promoted. This award recognizes the homerun, the big impact idea. And we should recognize these homeruns, but not only the homeruns.

The spirit of kaizen is continuous improvement by everyone. Not everyone can hit a homerun, but everyone can manage a single. You show me an organization that only values the homerun, and I’ll show you an organization that only has a small portion of the workforce engaged in the continuous improvement process.

Recognize the modest steps as much as the leaps. In fact, especially in the early stages of a lean transformation, I would heavily weight the recognition, informal and formal, towards the small incremental changes to encourage broad engagement and develop an improvement habit in everyone.

Other Lean Behaviors to Recognize

Engaging in Process Improvement: The fear of failure is deeply ingrained in many of us and will prevent individuals from offering and trying improvement ideas. To help alleviate this fear, when a team is being recognized for an achievement, have them discuss the multiple plan-do-check-act cycles they went through on their way to the improved condition. The failed experiments aren’t viewed as failures, but rather essential learning cycles that lead to the improved condition. The outcome and the improvement process are both being highlighted, which provides a different perspective of failure.

Embracing Mistakes: Another fear to overcome is the fear of highlighting problems and mistakes. Is a “Best Mistake” award going too far? Maybe, but if there’s a process of learning and development that occurred and is shared, maybe there’s value in it. Again, the focus is on process, not outcome.

When determining what to recognize, consider targeting the desired process. The right process will produce the desired outcome!

Next Steps

Determine your next recognition experiments by following these two steps:

1. Start with your current state. Look at each of your current recognition activities to determine whether anything unintentionally conflicts with lean principles. Focus on both who and what are being recognized. Clean this up first to eliminate any mixed signals.

2. Insert new practices. Determine what you can insert into your recognition plan to help clarify and encourage desired behaviors. Start with an understanding of lean principles and the associated lean behaviors that you want to encourage.

Continually assess and improve your recognition practices. And though our discussion scenario focused on a company-wide recognition event, don’t ever forget the simplest form of recognition—and I believe, the most powerful. Just say “Thank you!” Say it often.

Dave Rizzardo is the associate director of the Maryland World Class Consortia. Dave co-developed the Lean Peer Group service, which helps organizations develop a lean culture. He is the author of Lean - Let's Get It Right! How to Build a Culture of Continuous Improvement

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