Friday, March 25, 2011

Lean Quote: Carrots and Sticks

On Fridays I will post a Lean related Quote. Throughout our lifetimes many people touch our lives and leave us with words of wisdom. These can both be a source of new learning and also a point to pause and reflect upon lessons we have learned. Within Lean active learning is an important aspect on this journey because without learning we can not improve.

"We could probably win more often if we were willing to deploy seasoned personnel and equip them with sufficient carrots and sticks." — Thomas M. Fran


Motivation is a core factor for a successful business and there have been many studies around it, yet there is no definitive answer or a one size fits all solution to motivation and employee engagement. The several elements of motivation differ from person to person as well as circumstances.

A well known motivational concept is the “Carrot and Stick” approach. This analogy is about using rewards and penalties in order to obtain desired results. It refers to the old story that in order to get a donkey to move forward and pull the cart you would dangle a carrot in front of him or hit him with a stick from behind. The result is the same; the horse moves forward.

So the stick represents fear, which can be a good motivator when used sparingly at the right time. It may produce immediate results that derive from prompt compliance. It is only useful in the short term though, as over time increasing levels of punishment would be necessary to obtain the same results and this can backfire in the form of mutiny and sabotage.

The carrot is then an incentive, which can work very well as long as the individual finds the incentive appealing. In this case, the donkey would have to like carrots, be hungry and/or have a manageable and movable load in order for the carrot to work. This is very important as the incentive must be perceived to be attractive enough.

Reward and punishment are significant motivators only if the reward is large enough or the punishment sufficiently severe. For example, management holds out a carrot, offering a week’s paid vacation to the person who has the highest production numbers. Employees will work hard to reach that target (if the vacation is really what they want), but once the contest is over, they will revert back to their previous level of effort. Or, management wields a stick, threatening some kind of punishment if employees don’t do their jobs. In those cases, people will do just enough to “stay under the radar” and avoid getting into trouble. While some carrots and sticks may work in crisis situations or as a stop-gap remedy, what they mostly do is promote nearsighted thinking, mistrust, cynicism, and a diminished capacity to innovate and create.

Typically, organizations tend to base their motivational schemes on tangible good such as money, in the form of pay and bonuses. The problem with this, like the carrot, is that its attractiveness decreases over time. Sometimes, a simple word of praise from your boss can mean more than a small pay rise. If organizations could find the perfect balance been tangible and intangible rewards, carrots and sticks, this would be the answer to the motivation question. Managers must not overlook these motivators if they want to retain staff and more importantly, have them working to the best of their ability.


If you’re looking for ways to create an environment where people are driven to do their best work, you’ll need to think beyond carrots and sticks. It’s a bit trickier, perhaps a little messier, but if you want to create a thriving organization, you’ll need to consider motivation from the inside out.

What motivates you at work? How do you motivate others?



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