Tips for Lean Managers

How to Motivate Front Line Workers

By Jon Miller Updated on May 23rd, 2017

We are often asked the million dollar question, “How do we motivate the front line workers?” This is a high value question because people are any organization’s greatest yet often worst utilized asset.

Understanding how to practically tap into people’s infinite creativity, energy and passion is the Philosopher’s Stone wrapped in a treasure map and dipped in gold.

This challenge was posed to me at a recent speaking event during the panel discussion. The question was, “How do we motivate the the grass roots to get involved in Lean?” This led to a lively discussion with answers offered from around the room. Clearly it is a hot topic here in China as in many places around the world. It is safe to say that nobody has yet cracked the code completely, and the answers I offered were not the sort quickly copied on Monday morning.

Daniel Pink writes and speaks about autonomy, mastery and purpose being chiefly responsible for motivation, particularly among professional workers. Borrowing from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we can say that people whose basic needs are fulfilled don’t simply want more of those basic needs (safety, income) but instead want self-fulfillment. The argument that intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation is not at all a new one. But if we are talking about “grass roots” and the workplace as an ecosystem we need to consider various environmental factors that result in increased intrinsic motivation.

Building on the nature metaphor, we can say that grass roots motivation requires the right environmental factors, namely soil, sun and clouds.

Soil. Roots grow downwards because they are geotropic, moving in response to gravity. The soil is the medium which allows grass to stay in place and take root, offering the chance for the blades to grow upwards. The immediate physical and organizational environment in which people work is probably the most important factory in the successful motivation and engagement of people. If the workplace is unsafe, lacking fair and followed rules, or missing a functioning team structure this is like planting garden grass seeds in the shifting sands: they will not grow. It is a system issue. Safety is at the base of the hierarchy of needs pyramid. If raising problems or suggestions for improving them results in blame or punishment, motivation will suffer. If the workplace itself is not stable and safe people will be too worried to think creatively.

The team structure is similar to having fertile soil that promotes growth but also that a gardener is present to actively weed and care for the grass. A lean high performance team requires a span of control small enough for the team leader to function as a checker, trainer and coach, enabling the growth of each individual.

Clouds. The hydrotropic nature of plants causes them to move and grow towards or away from water. The clouds bring rain and also block the sun. Too much cloud presence is a bad thing, but the absence of clouds is also fatal for grasses. In this sense the clouds are much like middle managers. Their role is to provide cover from the hot sun at times and nurturing rain at other times. They should be nearly always visible. Managers should make sure the system is working well and that people are working effectively within it, just as clouds play a role in the flow of water from earth to sea to heaven and back. Middle management is often overlooked during the change management or implementation stages of a business transformation, and the important role of middle management in spurring grass roots motivation should not be underestimated.

Sun. Plants are phototropic, the shoots and leaves following the sunlight in their direction of growth. The sun is our source of free energy. Nearly all life as we know it depends on the sun. The leadership by example, strategic direction and encouragement of senior management can bring about some of the most powerful intrinsic motivation. It is certainly more powerful and effective long-term than leaders who blow like the icy north wind, chasing the clouds away and turning even the rain to snow.

When the sun is a distant rumor for much of the year as it is in Seattle, people either find ways to cope through other distractions and lesser stimulants, or they move away. The same can be said for organizations within which the senior leaders do not regularly shine their life-giving light upon the people.

  1. Gary Sheader

    August 9, 2010 - 2:48 am

    A very intelligent comparison between the nurturing of staff and the natural growth of a seed.
    In my experience cross functional teams is a sure way to keep project momentum. No-one should be kept out of the loop at any stage. Occasionally managers will leave the front line workers out of the financial or decision making processes. This will always demotivate.
    A good article to get the brain matter flowing. Excellent stuff.

  2. John Hunter

    August 9, 2010 - 3:03 am

    I see respect for people (that I think requires striving for joy in work) is critical. Dr. Deming stressed the importance of letting people take joy in work. A big part of this are many sensible respect for people notions. But also he stressed the importance of allowing people to take pride in what they do. Critical to this is providing meaningful work and organizing the work so that people can see and feel the contribution they make.
    The overly simplistic example is that tightening one screw all day on an assembly line is very easy to think of yourself as a cog in a machine. Work needs to be designed to let people take pride in their contributions. An understanding of the whole system and work cells often helps. Sharing information so everyone can think of the big picture helps. Companies that truly focus on a vision can do this very well. But it is not a simple – plug this idea in exercise. To build such a culture takes an understanding of psychology and a true commitment to respect for people. Posts on my blogs about motivation.

  3. kopstar

    August 9, 2010 - 6:00 am

    Respect for the individual – get to know your people, understand what their values are and show genuine empathy.
    Humility – good ideas can come from anyone at any time, listen to people’s thoughts and ideas and take time to explain your decisions.
    Trust – trust is two way, leaders crave trust yet really exhibit trust of their people to either make decisions or even complete a day’s work without being monitored on the clock.
    Get these things right and you will have motivated and dedicated employees.

  4. Joseph

    August 9, 2010 - 1:21 pm

    Once again this is an excellent Blog and it has attracted 3 excellent replies.
    I agree with their comments and found that if I challanged the team to show how good they were they never let me down.
    I had a team from what was considered the worst area in the plant. They were selected to do a presentation to the MD of a very, very large public company and his Team of some 30 people who were visiting our plant. The MD was very impressed at the quality of their work and their presentation. At the end of the presentation he took me to one side and said how did you get these people to do work of this high standard. He said that he could not get his people to do work to this standard. I told him that I had told the team that he and his people thought that our people were of poor quality and very little ability. The operators were fighting to be part of the actual presentation team. They wanted to show him how good they were and that was what they did. In spades.
    People may have better ways but the one I used worked.
    The people in the team had all left school at the age of 15 and most had no formal qualifications but given coaching and support they all responded. Above and beyond the call of duty. Some proved that they were so good that they were later promoted. Lean was their chance to show people how good they were and they grabbed it with both hands.

  5. John Santomer

    August 10, 2010 - 7:48 am

    Dear Jon,
    I personally believe in individuality and a person’s great passion to prove one’s self. A great drive will pull an individual above and beyond expectations being focused driven and properly motivated. With good guidance and coaching, an enabled person can and will do what is asked of him. Question: Because this person was able to deliver above and beyond expectations, even without formal qualifications; does this entitle the person for a promotion over another who is qualified? I remember you once mentioned that a true measure of lean included continuous improvement, sustainability paired with respect for humanity…
    What message are we sending to people who have spent the early years of their lives preparing to be good contributors to the company investing time and education only to be by-passed by an under-grad who has done a “good job” because resources and authority were made readily available by a stakeholder?
    As opposed to one who is qualified has prepared himself intellectually to be able to get in the company, does not have the resources available and have done the same job for the first time; trail blazing while the other who got promoted just followed suit? The scalar chain is supposed to uphold the good practices of the organization, but by this promotion what will be the message to the rank and file?
    How do you boost employee morale if this is allowed to happen?

  6. Jon Miller

    August 10, 2010 - 8:55 am

    Hi John
    That’s a tough question. Life doesn’t dole out opportunities fairly to each of us. Some prepare intellectually, some prepare by just being where stakeholders walk by and some are apparently born into it. I would think most adults would recognize that this is the case and there’s no moving ahead by being sore at others who are more fortunate. An organization that doesn’t try to provide opportunities to everyone may certainly struggle with morale. A person who expects exactly equal opportunity doesn’t understand probability and may never be happy.

  7. Mark Graban

    August 10, 2010 - 4:26 pm

    I’m a huge fan of Daniel Pink’s “Drive.” A lot of this does trace back to Dr. Deming of course. My only criticism of “Drive” is that Deming was never cited, even once. One of my favorite Deming-isms is that you can’t motivate people, you can only avoid DE-motivating people.
    If managers need to ask “how do I motivate my front-line staff?”, I think it’s a good exercise to talk through how they got demotivated in the first place. I think it was Peter Sholtes who asked “Why do you have dead wood in your organization if you hired live trees?” or something like that.

  8. Scott Nisbet

    August 26, 2010 - 6:57 am

    I never liked the expression that “people are your greatest asset”. People should never be looked upon as an asset. An asset is defined as property owned and controlled by the firm. People cannot be controlled, only influenced, and are certainly not owned. Therefore, people should be looked upon as members. Members are stakeholders in an organization. This recognition is one step towards respect for people, versus looking at them as objects.

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