LeanBlog Podcast #57 – Alfie Kohn, “Punished by Rewards”

My guest for LeanBlog Podcast #57 is Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer in the fields of education, parenting, and human behavior. His books include Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

I reached out to Alfie after there was some very good discussion on the blog about Chicago Public Schools giving incentive payments to high school students earning A’s, B’s, and C’s. Many of the arguments that Alfie makes are reminiscent of Dr. W. Edwards Deming and can be applied, more generally, to many organization settings where rewards and incentives are used. I hope you find this interesting and thought provoking. If anything, the Dr. Deming fans will want to listen to the end of the Podcast where Alfie does a dead-on impression of Dr. Deming. To read more articles, Alfie’s website is http://www.alfiekohn.org.

Click to play:

MP3 File


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For earlier episodes, visit the main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS or via Apple iTunes. The podcast is available there in MP3 or AAC formats.

Episode #57 Key Words and Links:

  • Blog post that started the discussion
  • Alfie’s website
  • Rewards for grades are a “reward for a reward” — magnifying the harm.
  • What you get is, at best, temporary compliance, but at a very high cost.
  • Discussion of nominated Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.
  • Great questions about the purpose of education — to create learners or prep people for the working world?
  • Ties to the philosophy and lessons of Dr. Deming.
  • Great Deming impression at the end!

If you have feedback on the podcast, or any questions for me or my guests, you can email me at leanpodcast@gmail.com or you can call and leave a voicemail by calling the “Lean Line” at (817) 776-LEAN (817-776-5326) or contact me via Skype id “mgraban”. Please give your location and your first name. Any comments (email or voicemail) might be used in follow ups to the podcast.

To read the full transcript of this podcast, plus over 20 more discussions with world-renowned Lean leaders and other interesting guests, please consider buying my e-Book or a special package that includes an easy download of all of the MP3 podcast files.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an book titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. glanger says

    I thoroughly enjoyed the podcast with Alfie and I really like the relationship that you bring up between behavior, leadership and Lean. I still remember a comment I heard from someone who went on a plant visit to Toyota. The comment described the person’s surprise at the level of motivation of the worker at the plant as they were complying with takt times. “… they are working as hard as they can, sweating to hit the takt times, for the same pay as the guys at the GM plant down the road.”

    BTW Toyota and other Lean companies are not the only ones who have mastered this ability to foster performance thru inspiration and motivation. I have seen it in many industries, academia and even military organizations. I believe that it is the fundamental element to organization performance.
    (I have a relevant blog post on this)

  2. David Carlton says

    I’m really looking forward to listening to this one: I’ve been an Alfie Kohn fan for more than a decade, and a lot of the thoughts in his early books (Punished by Rewards, especially, but also No Contest) would fit very well into a lean context. I really need to go reread his books, maybe listening to this will give me a nudge!

  3. Mark Graban says

    Q&A from a reader:

    Reader question:

    Can you point me towards a good source for guidance on properly rewarding employees? I loved the podcast with Alfie Kohn, but he told us what not to do and didn't tell us what to do(a good reason to have him on again?). Should we reward for good results or for employees following the process? What is a sustainable way to truly motivate and inspire employees? What variables effect the process of rewarding? How much(if any) will the process change if we employ mostly Spanish speaking low-income workers?

    Response that I got from Alfie via email:

    Thanks for your note. Rather than doing another interview, I think I'll just refer this listener to chapter 10 of Punished by Rewards ("Thank God It's Monday"), which talks about alternatives to rewards, not alternative ways of rewarding people. The answer to the question "How should we reward employees, then?" is "We shouldn't. They're not pets. We should pay them fairly and then do everything we can to take their minds off of money.

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