Sometimes when I have used the term “game” in the same sentence with business the response I have gotten from my audience goes something like this, “ You can’t make a game out of business; business is serious.” After we talk about it for a while many in the audience usually recognize that my idea of business being a game does make some sense. Business is a game grown ups play for real money, there’s winning, losing, prizes and surprises just like any good game would have.
So if business is a game, albeit a serious one, why don’t we do more to bring out the game-like qualities in the workplace? After all most of us do enjoy playing games of many types and we can get pretty invested while we are playing.
Keep that question in mind while you ponder the reality that the average North American workplace is currently operating with somewhere around 30% of the workforce reporting being fully engaged; hardly what you’d expect from a great game.
Last week I had an opportunity to visit a medical device manufacturing facility located in my area. A good friend has recently taken on the position of Chief Operating Officer there and he wanted me to see the work he had been doing with the workforce to reduce the errors being made in the production of the custom devices this installation make and sells. He’d sort of been bugging me about it and even though my primary interest lie more with employee engagement I decided that maybe I had something to learn from his quality initiatives.
I have to admit, I had not made a connection between quality initiatives and employee engagement. As it turned out…silly me! When I arrived he took me out on the production floor to watch the process had been using for about four months. I mentioned earlier that this company produces custom products and they are complex and expensive for both manufacturer and end users. Because of the complexity, much of which arises in the customization process, the opportunities for error are many. Errors are costly both in terms of costs and time to delivery and historically errors at this company had taken a toll on their competitiveness in an industry that like many others that has become global.
Out on the production floor I saw charts indicating that significant progress had been made in error reduction even in the short time my friend had been there. The statistics were certainly impressive but my educational experience began with the next step.
A few years back Mike Rother, working out of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor translated the legendary Toyota manufacturing process into language and concepts that can be applied to virtually any industry and any type of workforce. Rother has a book of course but he also operates the Toyota Kata Website, which I would encourage you to visit. My friend has become well acquainted with the methods developed by Rother and his primary attraction to the approach is the impact it has on employee engagement.
After our review of the charts we next visited the actual Kata process. As you probably have guessed the term Kata is Japanese and means “form.” In practice then it is the study of the movements, or form of producing anything. From what I witnessed I’d say the real meaning is Eureka!
What I got to see was production workers from a variety of backgrounds, Vietnamese, South American, Russian as well as American working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to bring about improvements in the various stages of the production process. To say the least it was exciting. These were folks with a variety of educational, language and cultural differences who were coming together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to work collaboratively on what they had in common, the day to day working experience.
Within moments of the Kata process getting underway it was obvious, these people were playing a game! They were involved, they were passionate; they exhibited initiative and creativity, all why listening intently to what their colleagues had to share. What I found so attractive about the process was that it gave these production workers the chance to solve their own problems. This aspect of the work has historically been reserved for engineers and supervisors and the workers merely reported the problems and then stood back. Beyond the involvement the people in the Kata process were encouraged to experiment and when there experiments didn’t work out they were applauded for what they had learned. Imagine, employees encouraged to take risks?
Of course after such a short period the process is not without flaws. There is still a lot of learning going on but the level of enthusiasm for playing the game was undeniable. Was there 100% engagement, no, but there was a heck of a lot more than 30%.