Dare to try: the importance of rewards

Posted on 6 Jan 2012

What’s more valuable to a company trying to make its processes leaner? Is it success, or is it also failure to find the right solution? Roberto Priolo shares his opinion on the role of rewards within a lean organisation.

There is no argument, we learn by making mistakes. As much as we would like to constantly get things “right first time”, this outcome is not always achievable. Taking risks, and therefore chances, can do wonders for our learning curve: getting positive results is certainly a sign of success, but this doesn’t mean that the work of a team conceiving a solution and trying to apply it to a problem without succeeding is any less valuable.

It’s by making mistakes that we get closer to a positive outcome. It’s like adjusting the aim as we are about to shoot an arrow: it might take us a while to understand the right angle, or the power and direction of the wind, but we will eventually hit the red circle. It will also take a lot of exercise.

These principles are even truer in business. Wouldn’t it be great to make products with zero defects from the first time, being perfectly aligned with our suppliers without hitting any bumps in the road and, in general, delivering a flawless service to our customers? Trouble is, this might not be always possible at the very beginning. Not to mention that every company has to find its own way to deal with its problems and specific needs: when lean is seen merely as a set of tools, it won’t be of any help in changing the culture. Lean should be approached as a new business model, and there is no business model that can be universally applied to just any company.

That is why the debate on rewarding lean success is ever so important. Many think that rewarding employees (individuals or teams) for their success is fundamentally wrong, because it sends out the wrong message: at the end of the day, they believe, if they do things right they are merely doing their job, and what they are supposed to do. Some go even further than that, and reward failure.

As wrong as this may sound, they might actually have a point. Making mistakes while trying hard to achieve a result or trying out a new method that is worth considering cannot be seen as something that penalises the employee. “Failing fast” is an adage that we hear often: identifying a faulty method (or a method that simply doesn’t work well in our company) early on before it becomes the “rule to follow” to deliver a particular process is absolutely priceless, and can save a lot of money and time in the future. What may look wasteful today can actually end up eliminating much more waste tomorrow. Many companies have been reported to reward failure. This can be particularly useful for companies that are well advanced in their lean journey, whose success and compliance with “the way we do things here” can often lead to a complacent workforce: highlighting mistakes while celebrating the help they provide the business with is a way to remind people that no matter how good things are, waste and errors can always find ways to creep back into the system. “To err is human, to persist in it is diabolical,” said Latin thinker Seneca.

Different opinions

Many would not agree with the idea that awarding success in lean processes is fundamentally wrong. Once again, I believe there is no set rule for this kind of things. Depending on the level of engagement you have been able to ensure within your business and the attitude of your employees towards their workplace and company, rewarding good results can be a valuable way to strengthen buy-in and empower your workforce. In an article appearing in the next issue of the LMJ, which is going to press next week, Yeo Valley’s Steve Welch says that acknowledging mistakes is incredibly important for the yogurt manufacturer. However, the company goes a long way in rewarding individual and team success, for example by giving out certificates.

One common mistake is to use monetary rewards without thinking this through. Handing a check to a team leader for the job that his entire team has performed is wrong (although individually acknowledging his pivotal role isn’t), as is spending big amounts of money in offering lavish parties to a team that has done well in the last month or so, especially when that team has seen its budget being consistently reduced.

When it comes to lean there is no golden rule. Every situation is different, and calls for a different solution. But one thing is for sure: you shouldn’t be afraid to try different approaches. In the long run, you will be glad you have done so and you will be able to reap benefits that you wouldn’t have reaped had you simply followed the textbook and failed to dare.

Roberto Priolo

Editor, Lean Management Journal