Tips for Lean Managers

How to Motivate People to Change, Part 2

By Jon Miller Published on January 31st, 2007

How to motivate people to change? A day later and I still don’t know, but Taiichi Ohno’s “game of wits” comes to mind (see chapter 25 of Workplace Management). A game is something that is fun. Most of us are motivated, at least in part, by fun.
In order to lead a large number of people, you have to be tough when it comes to work. However I think this is basically not a matter of giving orders or instructions, but a game of wits with subordinates. I tell people “When you give an order or an instruction to a subordinate you have to think as if you were given the order or instruction yourself.” And if you lose this game of wits, you have to swiftly admit it.
By the 1980s when Ohno’s words were recorded the Japanese had a lot of material wealth. It was not the first three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that motivated people but fourth or fifth, recognition and self-actualization.
Here Ohno is saying that you should give a problem or a difficult task to your subordinate (an order) and think for yourself how to accomplish it. This can be quite a challenging game if you have capable subordinates, or a lot of subordinates.
In a game there is win or lose. Whether or not people are very competitive, they like to do a good job and be recognized for it. This is the fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy.
So the game of wits is, in part, giving challenges to subordinates and thinking with them to make sure that they succeed, giving them suggestions if necessary but playing down your own contribution and giving credit to your subordinates. Ohno is talking about motivating people by being a humble leader that others willingly follow.
In chapter 28 of Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management he addresses the issue of how to play the game of wits:
Earlier I spoke about a “game of wits” but just think of your wits as something that do not work unless you feel the squeeze. So how do we make everybody feel the squeeze?
I have translated the Japanese title of this chapter 知恵は困らにゃ出てこん as “Wits Don’t Work Until You Feel the Squeeze.” This is a standard Toyota-ism, though Ohno’s expressions is a bit colloquial, and this is one that deserves to be etched on the brains of Lean thinkers and problem solvers everywhere.
This phrase can also be translated as “Wits don’t work unless you have problems / troubles / struggles” or “You won’t have good ideas until you are under pressure” and so forth. The meaning is very similar to “necessity is the mother of invention” but stronger.
If you are a person that is never satisfied, it is not hard to play the game of wits with subordinates and motivate them to improve themselves and their work by solving challenging problems. I think Ohno recognized that most people have a tendency to be complacent and to take the path of least resistance, and that is why he said:
Specifically, the game of wits is to think of how to make people feel the squeeze. If you can make them feel like they are being squeezed to death, they will come up with good ideas for sure.
What an odd, counterintuitive way to motivate people. Satisfy their basic need for physical safety, security, belonging, recognition and then plunge them back into a sense of deep trouble and struggle, so that through challenge people will rise up and self-actualize.
But it is very important to remember that Ohno also said:
How do we make them feel the squeeze? In order to make them feel the squeeze you have to feel the squeeze yourself, so that you can use your wits also.
It takes two to play the game of wits, and motivation starts with the squeeze.
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