The Vital Role Reward and Recognition Plays in Continuous Improvement

By on June 27, 2019
Employee reward and recognition

“This is the first time in my twenty-one years in this plant that anyone has asked me ‘What do you think?’”

“The only time I hear from the plant manager is when he comes out and screams at me for doing something wrong.”

“This company doesn’t give a damn about what I think.”

Three different line workers. Three different companies. Three different work environments, each led by leaders who, by their behavior, appear to believe that their employees don’t need to have experiences that tell them loud and clear that they are respected and that their ideas are needed.

How incredibly naïve this belief is. It represents a denial of what you and I are, what you and I need and what drives all of us to higher levels of performance.

All of us probably remember what is called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented in this pyramid.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow called the bottom two levels of the pyramid “deficiency needs” because we feel little if they are met. They’re the needs that have to do with survival. The top three needs – love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization – are the needs which, if met, drive high levels of performance. When these needs are met, we come to understand that we have the ability to use our knowledge, intelligence and creativity to drive continuous improvement. We become empowered employees.

Recognition vs. Compensation: Which Means Most?

Let’s do a little self-test of the validity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Think about this just for a moment:

Recall a time in your life when you got person-to-person feedback from a manager or executive leader for whom you worked that made you believe your work was really valued, really important to the organization. Next, think about what you were paid when this happened. Can’t remember what you were paid?

That’s typical and it’s certainly true for me.

Shortly after I was hired, the CEO of the performance improvement company for which I worked walked into my office and said, “I’m really glad you joined our team and I hope you have a great career with us.”

Later in the day, I got a handwritten note from him elaborating on what he had told me in my office. I still have the note and sometimes I take it out of my files and read it. What was I paid when this happened? Don’t have a clue. You and I don’t remember the pay we got because pay only meets what Maslow calls “our deficiency needs.”

Unfortunately, there are still far too many people who simply don’t understand this.

I’ve had plant managers say to me, “Why should I go around praising employees? I pay them and that should be enough.”

And I’ve replied to them, “Are you getting 100% performance from all of your employees?”

Quite often, my comment is met with silence.

Salary Does Not Sustain Employee Satisfaction

Clearly, pay alone doesn’t drive improved performance. At most, it only drives more of the same, the status quo – a sure road to failure in today’s very volatile marketplace.

What inspires the kind of active employee engagement that results in continuous improvement? The noted Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory is a good place to start answering this question.

One element of Skinner’s theory pertaining to positive reinforcement teaches us that the most powerful way to change what employees think about themselves is with positive, immediate, and certain reinforcement of those behaviors that need to be repeated. When this happens, employees feel a stronger affinity for their company. And when this happens, they become actively involved in continuous improvement.

Reward and recognition methods play a major role in driving the types of changed thinking upon which sustainable continuous improvement depends.

Characteristics of Reward Methods That Drive Improved Performance

All effective reward programs share these characteristics:

  • They are targeted at specific behaviors.
  • They are personal, given by one person to another person.
  • They are given as closely as possible to when the targeted behavior is observed.

Here are examples of rewards given to employees by several of our clients:

1. To enable supervisors to give positive, immediate and certain reinforcement for targeted behaviors, some of my clients give supervisors “company money” like this in amounts of $1, $5, $10 and $15 to present to employees when they observe the types of behaviors the company wants to reinforce. In addition, they provide training on how to best deliver this form of recognition. When presenting the reward, supervisors name the specific behavior they are recognizing.

A sample of company money

Some organizations reward employees with “company money” to purchase merchandise.

For example, “Bill, you’ve done a great job of identifying waste in our billing processes and we really appreciate your contribution to the success of our company.”

Employees use this “money” to purchase logoed merchandise out of company catalogs.

2. Other reward methods used to very good effect by several of our clients are pre-loaded gift cards in amounts of $5, $10 or $15 from companies whose merchandise is valued by their employees. These gift cards are given to front-line supervisors for their use as just-in-time rewards for good work by the individuals they supervise.

Characteristics of Recognition Programs that Drive Improved Performance

Whatever their type, all effective recognition programs share these characteristics:

  • They say loud and clear to all employees that their thinking and creativity are greatly respected.
  • They communicate very clearly to all employees that their identification of waste in work processes is appreciated and needed.
  • They reinforce in all employees the understanding that they are vital partners in their organization’s drive to continually improve all work processes.

Here are examples of employee recognition programs used by our clients that have been very effective:

1. The idea board is an extraordinarily simple method of letting employees know that their thinking is respected and their ideas about how to improve work processes are needed. In the idea board pictured, we see clear evidence of the way high levels of employee involvement in continuous improvement are triggered.

Hydromat and Edge Technologies idea board

An idea board used by Hydromat & Edge Technologies to help inspire employees.

This idea board at Hydromat & Edge Technologies was quickly filled with hundreds of ideas from employees on how to eliminate waste in work processes. And, they’re very simple to use: an employee has an idea, writes it on a Post-it® note and mounts it in the “idea” column. Every two weeks, a team of employees meets in front of their idea board and makes decisions about ideas, which are immediately delivered to the employees who contributed the ideas. As ideas move through the “idea, to do, doing and done” stages, everyone can see how their ideas are progressing.

2. The STAR form is a very effective way of recognizing an employee’s contributions to their company’s success. Many of our clients have used Development Dimension International’s (DDI) STAR form, shared with them in DDI’s Coaching for Success seminar that is part of our Lean Leadership series. They have found it to be an inexpensive, yet powerful, method of changing employee behaviors.

Example of the STAR form

A STAR form is an effective way to recognize employees.

Here’s an example of how it is typically filled out as well as an example of Packaging Concepts’ very creative and powerful method of delivering it.

Packaging Concepts STAR award

Packaging Concepts supervisor Paul Hamlin delivers a STAR award to employee Mark Bridges.

Here we see supervisor Paul Hamlin delivering the STAR form on the line to employee Mark Bridges in recognition of Mark’s outstanding work as a pressman. A photo of the presentation coupled with a description of why it was given is put on a TV screen in their breakroom, significantly increasing the impact of this form of recognition. All employees can see that Packaging Concepts really appreciates their outstanding work.

3. Nova Marketing, Inc. provides employees with a method of publicly recognizing the outstanding performance of other employees. They call it their “high-five board.” Employees recognize the good work of their fellow employees, creating a feeling of camaraderie and also letting their colleagues know how much their contributions to continuous improvement are valued by their fellow employees.

Nova Marketing high-five board

Nova Marketing uses a high-five board to encourage peer-to-peer employee acknowledgement.

4. The CEO of a client company sends personal notes to the homes of employees with comments such as, “Tanya, I just wanted to let you know that we really appreciate the great work you’re doing in identifying waste in your department’s work processes and your ideas you post on our idea board. I’m really glad that you’re a member of our team.”

5. Members of several of our clients’ leadership teams walk through work areas and have short, focused conversations with employees, asking them if there is any way their work can be made easier, asking them if they have any ideas about how to improve their work processes and thanking them for their personal contributions to the success of the company.

The reward and recognition programs we’ve just reviewed will drive very significant increases in employee engagement, productivity and product quality. They’re also inexpensive to enact.

Their effectiveness depends on two primary factors:

  • • Having a leadership team that understands that it takes more than pay to unleash the full creativity, knowledge and expertise of their employees.
  • • Having managers and supervisors who know how to deliver positive, immediate and certain reinforcement for behaviors they want to see repeated.

You absolutely won’t regret using one or several of these reward and recognition methods in your organization, and your employees will thank you.

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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