Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Motivate Employees With 'Outside the Box' Thinking

In 37 years in the work force, some as an employee, most in management, there’s only one motivator I’ve personally come across that caused large numbers of individuals to immediately improve their job performance.

The Problem: At the time I was a young man loading trucks for a large national trucking company.  Management’s problem was “miss-sorts,” too many packages chronically loaded onto the wrong trucks, resulting in costly delivery delays.  This was the situation:  The section of the plant I worked in had six trucks, all bound for different parts of the U.S., backed up to bays in front of which boxes flowed by on a conveyor belt.  Two people worked each truck:  a “pickoff man” (or woman, we had one in the job in the two years I worked there) who picked the boxes off the conveyor belt, and a loader who stacked the boxes inside the truck.  It was a fast operation and boxes moved quickly.  Try as one might to read all labels carefully, in the sea of boxes up to 50 pounds flowing down the belt a pickoff man generally misread a few labels during each shift.

This problem could be virtually eliminated if the loader also read the labels inside the truck, providing a double check.  This was a union shop, however, so management authority was a somewhat constrained, but the more pressing issue was that loaders strongly disliked double-checking the labels.  In fact (as I well remember), it was a challenging job: The trucks had little light in them, so it was difficult to see, and it was bitter cold in winter and sweltering in summer.  Loading was OK when one was left alone to a continuous rhythm of mindless labor, but straining to read each label in dim light added a markedly stressful element.  For the most part management accepted the situation, occasionally pushing for more diligent inside-the-truck double checking, but generally acknowledging the task’s inherent difficulty.

The creative solution: At one point, however, when miss-sorts became too costly an issue, management devised a new incentive program.  Overnight it changed all of the loaders’ collective behavior and resolved the problem.

What was the motivator?  It was unexpectedly simple: Molson Beer.