Stop Demotivating Me, Lean Style


CIO Magazine Article

Hat tip to Curious Cat for finding this and blogging about it first. I couldn't resist chiming in. The author brings up the old Deming philosophy approach that you can't really motivate people, you can only demotivate them and destroy their intrinsic motivation. I love quoting Peter Scholtes about hiring “live trees” and turning them into “dead wood.”

Esther Derby lists a number of demotivators, I'll highlight a few with Lean example or perspectives:

Surprises at the annual employee review

It's classic Deming to rail against annual reviews. No need to elaborate myself, since Deming said it best (and Curious Cat summarizes/compiles it well). Deming was a huge influence on Toyota and their production system. I have to say, though, I don't know if Toyota uses annual reviews or not, in Japan or elsewhere. Does anyone know?

Micromanagement: “Micromanagement—dictating each detail of how a task should be done—deprives people of autonomy. It communicates that the manager believes people are incompetent and incapable of making judgments. The worst form of micromanagement is telling people how to do a task without telling them why the task matters.

Now some might accuse Lean and the Standardized Work philosophy as being a form of micromanagement. It would be “L.A.M.E.” to approach SW this way, but many do it. SW is not about managers (or consultants) telling people how to do their work because they said so. SW must be developed by the employees who do the work. I'm doing this in a hospital department right now. People do not like to be told what to do, they'll only accept SW when they've had input. That doesn't mean everyone gets their way, but they've been heard out and considered. Explaining “why?” is a key TPS mindset, take that extra time to not just say “make sure the label is straight” but also to explain why (“the test instrument will not read the bar code, delaying test results to the patient”). Here's an example of the NUMMI plant doing this.

Asking for one behavior and rewarding another

This happens a lot with L.A.M.E. — we tell plant managers to “get Lean,” then we punish them for not overproducing and keeping the plant running to keep costs down. Or, we punish them for partnering with the “lowest total cost” supplier instead of picking the one with the cheapest unit cost. Of course this is demotivating!

Asking for input and then ignoring it.

It's far easier to parrot the Toyota Way thinking of involving and engaging all employees than it is to live it every day!

Empty phrases.

I hope we don't often use empty phrases and slogans in a Lean environment. They're common in mass production systems, as evidenced by these “Quality Posters” that I linked to before (again, real posters). Deming said to abolish slogans, we can't just say “Do it right the first time!” as a slogan, although it is a real Lean principle. We have to work at it, not just say it, supporting employees rather than blaming them.

People are expendable. When reducing costs means cutting employees, the message is that people aren't an asset to invest in; people are “labor costs.”

It's L.A.M.E. to use Lean to drive layoffs. Of course that's demotivating!

The author has some good ways to ensure that motivation does not go away. Check out the link to read them, good stuff.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. To avoid the “that’s not me” syndrome, I’d like to build on one of the points. Many organizations fail in these demotivators because they can’t see the issue. For example, very few people intentionally micromanage, instead they are “detail focused.” They aren’t trying to demotivate or to micromanage, but it comes out that way. Few people think that people are expendable, but their actions reflect it. The one I’d like to turn to is “asking for input and then ignoring it.”

    When you have a suggestion system or some system where you get employee input, no one intends to then ignore it. But to the employee it can feel that way. Here are some of the common mistakes.

    1. Not building the right infrastructure. If you don’t have the human infrastructure to support all of these ideas, they can become overwhelming and fall off the list. Start small, for two reasons. One, you won’t overpromise and can manage it. Second, identify the infrastructure gaps and apply some lean improvements to those processes.

    2. Not making it local. Many want to build a committee and a big software system. The best kind of system – direct to your immediate supervisor, who takes responsibility and can have a CONVERSATION. Imagine that, actually talking it out. Why don’t people do this? Because they haven’t invested in developing front line supervision. That’s an important variable in any kind of suggestion system, and this is one reason I believe an idea system is not usually step one. The supervisor should be able to coach and teach real-time.

    3. Suggestions instead of ideas. You should do this, you should do that! Many people have ideas of how OTHERS can improve their work. Instead, focus people’s efforts on their own work. How can they improve that?

    Most people don’t strive for disengagement. They just accidentally tend to end up there.

  2. Mark Graban asked whether Toyota uses Annual Reviews. It depends upon your meaning for “annual review”. TEMA Managers do work with each employee to design professional development plans appropriate for the employee’s classification and grade, updated annually, which both the employee and the manager use to monitor progress. It’s a PDCA cycle, and over time becomes a PDCA spiral as each new year adjusts to account for the prior year’s result.

  3. Yes demotivating employees has now become an industry. There is a satirical site called They have a clever poster on Leadership, perhaps these should be posted around the work place instead of the cheesy American ones.

  4. […] It’s easier to diagnose that people get demotivated over time. Think of a person in your workplace who is considered to have a “bad attitude.” Do you think they started their career or their job at that point? If so, why were they ever hired? You needed just “any warm body?” Well, that’s disrespectful, isn’t it? What do you think happened to turn the “live trees” you hired into “dead wood” as Peter Scholtes said? […]


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