Gaming Our Way to Lean Management

By Jon Miller Updated on December 14th, 2015

gamification lean chessGamification is a relatively new buzzword for the application of features of game-playing such as point scoring, competition with other players and so forth, into business activities. Game-playing involves rules, scoring, opportunities to be spontaneous and creative, and social interaction through competition with others. Gamification started out as a way to raise engagement with customers and users by making it possible for them to see their own usage statistics and how they compare with other users, in fun and motivating ways. Now some organizations are also experimenting with using game elements to engage employees in performance improvement of their job.

On reflection, it seems that Lean management is somewhat ahead of the curve in terms applying some gamification principles. Lean places great emphasis on visualization, both for performance management and for error detection. Kanban board are used in the process for agile / lean software development, in a scoreboard of sorts. Although competition between team members is not overtly encouraged, suggestion schemes using “wall of fame” type visual recognition creates motivation in a similar was as “leader boards” in social gaming. In a similar way the traditional “employee of the month” photo could be viewed as a low-key or unconscious attempt at gamification. The skill matrix, another example of a visual control, tracks the cross-training between workers in an area, showing both the depth of coverage for any process but also acting as a type of leader board.

The game elements of sporting events are often used as a bridge for understanding how to manage in a lean way. At a sporting events, the scoreboard is ever-present and central to the attention and awareness of the competing teams. At the individual level, during football games today we see players and coaches with Microsoft Surface tablets immediately reviewing and analyzing video of previous plays. Today the quasi-legal fantasy sports betting provides another level of customer engagement with professional sports. Professional sports has become serious business so it is appropriate that the gamification of the process of viewing sports is well underway.

In a recent article titled Gamification: Still a Gamble, but One with Real Payoffs, Accenture consultant Thomas Hsu commented that leadership “loves to give bad advice” because everyone thinks, “Oh, gamification, I get it — you just put game stuff into non-game contexts.” Ah, if we could just stop leaders from putting stuff into non-stuff contexts, how much easier the jobs of change agents would be! Like many tools and solutions that are good in theory but fail in practice, the first experiment with gamification shouldn’t be software program or exciting app. The technology should follow the human-centered design, after some anthropological field work and including a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

Even a playtime game is not “just a game”, or something of lower importance, to people. Children learn and socialize through games. For adults, games are important ways we relax, socialize, learn, gain status and confidence. Where the similarity between games as play and games as work ends, is the consequences of losing. We might feel bad when we win a game, by definition the stakes in “play” are not high. Even if work is gamified, when income and the well-being of the family is on the line, it’s not a game. When building in game elements into managing and improving work, it is necessary to not only add motivators but to first remove social threats.

Perhaps a better term for the gamification of work is “humanization.” Call it whatever we may,work can be designed to bring out the best in people when done correctly. This requires respect for people, an understanding of the humanity of the users, with the addition of elements such as exploration, spontaneity and fun, and leadership support for status visualization and problem response systems.

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