Work Can Be Play

By on August 31, 2016
Work Can Be Play

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

As I talked with Bill about what he did in the first stage of the assembly process of manufacturing a commercial GPS unit, it was impossible to not notice the energy in his voice and the smile on his face. Bill talked about how he had improved the process and how he was still thinking about ways to speed up one phase of the process. And when I watched Bill doing the assembly what I saw was an individual who was totally focused on what he was doing, energized by what he was doing, and enjoying what he was doing.

And then it occurred to me that I wasn’t watching Bill at work, I was watching Bill at play.

As I left the plant and drove back to my office I thought about the stark contrast between what I had just seen and heard and what I had seen and heard in a number of automotive plants in Detroit in the mid-80s. There I observed workers very different than Bill. Many were sullen, going through the motions, unhappy about what they were doing, and counting the seconds until the end of their shift. Several told me they thought the training I was doing was a waste of time, that they didn’t trust their company, and that they knew their company didn’t really care about them.

A spirit of play was nowhere to be found in these plants.

Why was Bill’s life at work filled with joy while the Detroit autoworkers experienced work as little more than drudgery? I believe it had to do with the degree to which these workers made use of the capabilities of the human mind; the ability of the mind to examine the way work is done; to speculate about different ways of doing the work; to test various methods of doing the work; to drive changes in the way the work is done. When this chain of events takes place, as it did with Bill, work becomes play. If they’re absent, work is drudgery.

One of the defining characteristics of play is that it engages the full range of human capabilities, body and mind. To play is to experiment. Tennis players constantly modify their game based on their read of their opponent. Should I play to his backhand? Should I rush the net? As a basketball player dribbles down the court, his mind is quickly weighing alternatives. Should I pass off to Bill? Or should I keep the ball and drive down the center?

We all understand that tennis and basketball players have to continually modify their games based on the needs of the very fluid environments in which they operate. If either would even for a moment view their environments as static and not respond quickly to change, they would lose.

I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t realize that “play” environments are highly fluid and that succeeding in them takes the continuing application of both body and mind. Yet too many of us see work environments as being essentially static.

We would all agree that those line workers known as tennis and basketball players have certain things they have to do, that they have to evaluate what they’re doing and they have to continually modify what they’re doing based on the real time needs of the game. Through this fine-tuning process, the work/play they engage in becomes more and more productive.

They’re acting just like Bill as he builds GPS units.

The most productive individuals in any work environment are like Bill. They’re really at play, not at work, at least as we conventionally think about work. They love the game they’re playing. It energizes them. They’re continually thinking about ways of improving what they’re doing. They’re on the outlook for any waste in the way they do their work and, when spotted, eliminating it. In short, they’re continually using their creativity, knowledge, and intelligence to drive higher and higher levels of performance.

When this happens they experience genuine joy, the same kind of joy felt by a tennis player after driving the ball down the line, unreachable by his opponent or by a basketball player after sinking a three-pointer.

As employees experience the joy that comes from the full involvement of body and mind in what they’re doing, what they’re “obliged to do” merges with “what they are not obliged to do,” as Tom Sawyer put it. The barrier between work and play is eliminated.

And when this happens, work is transformed into play.

Back to Tom Sawyer. As Tom’s whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence, his friend Ben Rogers comes walking along. The book continues:

“Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticized the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:”

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Reflecting on his experience with Ben, Tom observes:

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

In addition, although he never says this, what Tom discovered was a way of transforming work into play.

I’d appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you to discuss how our Lean transformation training and consulting resources can put the wisdom of Tom Sawyer to work for you, transforming your workers into highly productive players who can compete successfully in your fast paced marketplace. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s talk. I think you’ll find it time very well spent.

Work really needs to be play.

Tom Sawyer 8c 1972 issue U.S. stamp

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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