Drive Continuous Improvement & Operational Excellence



Having a motivated workforce is one of the key requirements for an organization’s success, for both operational excellence in day-to-day efforts and effective implementation of improvement programs. Achieving motivation ties to reinforcement, ideally generating a self-sustaining cycle. The more you do, the more reinforcement you get, the more you want to do…

The process follows this general pattern:

Stimulus (expectations) => Behavior (performance) => Reinforcement

It’s important to have measurable goals and specific desired actions in place so people know what to do. Then when they complete the actions or achieve the goals, they should have reinforcement, which motivates them to do more. Ultimately, reinforcement is an intrinsic element of a continuous improvement culture.

In the workplace, reinforcement takes the form of a reward and recognition system. This generally doesn’t come about organically but must be planned and implemented by leaders within the organization’s overall strategic deployment. Leaders at each level of the organization have specific accountabilities for the system, starting with strategic definition of a reward and recognition system and provision of required resources by the organizational manager and cascading to identification of specific worker actions and metrics that should be rewarded. Leaders at all levels, of course, also need to engage in daily recognition activities.


What is a Reward and Recognition System?

The reward and recognition system can take many forms, each with pros and cons. In many cases, elements of several systems are combined.

Pay for performance has a fairly common approach of allocating end-of-year raises according to performance appraisal rankings. High performers get larger raises than low performers. This system makes sense, but it has two major flaws as an actual motivational method. The once-a-year impact does little to reinforce day-to-day behaviors. Also, pay changes are generally private, so performers don’t know that they are receiving more or less money than their higher- or lower-performing peers. A 2% raise looks pretty sad unless you find out that no one else received more than 0.5%.

Profit sharing involves tying a portion of an individual’s pay to organization performance. This has several benefits: The organization has the ability to deliver reinforcement closer in time to real performance, e.g. with quarterly or monthly results. If a system articulates how employee actions tie to results, the link drives engagement by employees to achieve desired organizational performance. Teamwork is generally reinforced because everyone must work together to achieve goals. One downside is that employees may come to see this “bonus” as part of their compensation and expect this reward even when organizational performance is poor.

“Employee of the monthis the competition and recognition for the employee delivering the “best” results. One problem with this and other individual recognition programs is that it creates one winner…and many losers. Often the same individual wins the recognition month after month. He or she is motivated, but many others may actually be demotivated.

Suggestion systems can allow employees to contribute ideas and earn rewards if their ideas are implemented. Good planning is required so evaluating ideas and determining awards does not become burdensome.

Regular recognition is one of the best ways to reinforce contributions. This can include personal public or private acknowledgements, team celebrations and tangible reinforcement. Simply communicating the results and impact of good work can help workers have intrinsic motivation by seeing the value of their own efforts.


Leader Standard Work for Reward and Recognition

If you ask most leaders about reinforcement, they’re likely to say, “I’m already doing it.” However, if you survey their subordinates you might get a different picture: that the leader doesn’t do it, does it rarely, delivers mixed messages, or comes off as insincere.

Like all work, building leader reward and recognition skills can be addressed with a standard work approach. Remember that learning this new skill will require a significant change in habit for many Type A leaders who are focused on results. That means they may need to follow a performance improvement plan to become “reinforcers.” These guidelines adapted from Aubrey Daniels’ work in Performance Management may help:

  • Spread reinforcement around to all employees. Don’t just focus on your favorites or heroes…or on poor performers.
  • Follow a 4:1 ratio in delivering feedback. For every one negative comment you make, deliver four positive ones.
  • Use the acronym SSIP to make your reinforcement effective. Check that reinforcing comments are Sincere, Specific, Immediate, and Personal. e.g.  Instead of saying “Great job!” say “Thomas, your system check this morning helped us avoid a breakdown that would have caused overtime for everyone this weekend. Thanks for paying attention to detail.”
  • Don’t sandwich a negative comment between two positive ones. e.g. Don’t say: “This is a really good report. You missed one key element, but overall it’s pretty good.”
  • Vary your reinforcement pattern so that it is not predictable and therefore perceived as insincere.
  • Observe what your subordinates do to uncover things that may be reinforcing to them. e.g. When excellent results are achieved, have celebratory crudités instead of cake for a team that is working on a weight-loss challenge.
  • Giving people choices can be inherently motivating. e.g. One worker may be motivated by comp time while another may want a challenging new project.
  • Reward day-to-day excellence, not just heroic acts to fix the crisis of the day.
  • See whether your positive reinforcement increases perception and desired behaviors. If not, your actions may not be reinforcement in the eyes of the receiver.
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About the author

Brian Wilkins

Brian brings 15 years of sales and account management experience serving C-suite executives at Fortune 1000 organizations.