It’s easy in an organization to spot the bright stars, the individuals who seem to be in the center of all the creativity and positive change. But in fact our organizations have many, many stars – multiple galaxies full of them ranging from barely twinkling to awesomely bright.

When I wrote Business at the Speed of Now I wasn’t focused on all the bright stars because they thrive in the sky of work. I was focused on all the less bright stars that no one currently notices.

Our organizations are filled with people with unseen talent. We get to see them sparkle on rare occasions. But if you could peek into their personal lives you would see people with gifts and talents far beyond what we see at work.

I just wanted to draw attention to the person you regularly see at work who is a fully capable human being – yet is a person who works the way they have been trained to work. Head down. Mouth shut.

There is much discussed about employee engagement that views this body of work as being about employee satisfaction. It’s not. Employee engagement is about tapping into all those stars so they can constantly help your organization grow, create amazing customer experiences, and reduce your costs.

We have so many stars to work with… but we have to get them aligned to where we want them to go.  Then we need to give them the tools, information, development opportunities, and coaching they need to become bright stars – or at least brighter stars. That’s how you drive up employee engagement.

Engaging your employees is not about creating a satisfying environment because that does not assume creativity or going the extra mile.  Instead, employee engagement is about creating specific expectations and the tools needed to excel. It’s about running your business in a way that expects accountability and also enables it.

If every one of your employees really understood where you are trying to take the organization, if they really understood their part, and if they had everything they needed to be a bright star, don’t you think you could better achieve your vision?

Of course you could.

Why is it that some organizations seem to have all the luck? Take Apple for example. No matter what happens they just seem to keep hitting home runs.

Is it genius? Is it luck? Is it hard work?

The answer is “yes” – to every question. Performance improvement is about improving every aspect of the business every day.

In my local mall the Sony store is right across from the Apple store. If you go in on a Saturday there will be 50-100 people or more jammed in the Apple store with a couple of dozen people serving their needs. Across the aisle three or four Sony employees wait on maybe two customers – in the whole store, despite the fact that Sony makes exceptionally cool products, too.

But a long time ago Apple figured out that the biggest challenge of owning a computer is getting it to do what you want it to do.

If you own a PC you have to scramble to find someone who will sit down with you and solve your problem. That usually means you have to take your computer somewhere or pay someone to come to your home to help you. At work there is a whole support team to help people solve their problems.

At Apple there’s a whole crew waiting to help you with your iPhone, your iPad and your Mac. And you’re happy to pay the fee that greases this service engine because the service is great.

Besides, at the Apple store you establish relationships, and those relationships give you a taste of what Apple believes in.

Sony versus Apple. Who’s winning that battle?

In the end, success in business is less about luck and more about the details. It’s about making the little thing work because in the end the little thing is the big thing.


As I sit on a plane flying to my daughter Ashley’s graduation in Indiana, I cannot help but reflect back on my daughter’s life that brought her to this point. Yet, in the same thought I look forward with a great deal of optimism.

I am optimistic because Ashley, like her much-maligned generation, has a soul. They are passionate about making the world a better place and refuse to simply look the other way at injustice and irresponsibility.

Ashley, I know, is the best of the generation (fatherly pride showing through here), but her recognition that all is not right in our world is the difference any given generation has between those who lead and those who follow. Ashley will lead her generation to solve the problems my generation has created.

It’s not fun to talk about this nation’s declining stature sparked by a deficit in excess of $15 trillion – some $138,000 per tax paying citizen. It’s not fun to talk about our horrific relative global stature in math scores – falling below Estonia, Slovenia, Slovak Republic, and Czech Republic – not to mention another 15 countries everyone of us can find on the map. No one likes to talk about our dependence on oil from countries who despise us.

This next generation of leaders, like Ashley, definitely has their work cut out for them.

Ashley is graduating from Notre Dame with an MBA in Marketing and Corporate Social Responsibility. Ashley believes in business and she believes that business leaders have to be responsible to the greater good.

Ashley’s sense of social responsibility started when our family began recycling years before it was a common practice. In fact, I built a little recycling center in our garage. In those days we had to separate all the different items and then load them up and haul them to a recycling center. My older daughters still remember the regular and repeated lessons in the garage on what went into which bin — because they as young children weren’t much into the details.

Yes, we laugh at those old stories and I know we will as we all gather in Indiana to celebrate Ashley’s accomplishments and commitments.

Because this generation has a soul and cares deeply about improving the world, we need to encourage and support them. They have a lot of work ahead of them and we need strong committed leaders like Ashley to get this nation back on the right path.


One of the great beliefs we have as managers is that our job is to listen to our employees’ ideas and then go implement those that we find valuable. Sounds like a great idea. But as managers we know the reality is that a good many employee ideas just don’t make business sense.

My last week’s post was titled Engaging Employees: The Economics of Micro Ingenuity. In that post, I referred to research that shows for every employee that crosses over from being disengaged (meaning they do only what they are told to do) to engaged (meaning they make decisions and implement improvements without being asked), you can expect to add an incremental $13,000 to the bottom line each and every year.  That’s $13,000 per year per employee. Just do the math.

So if employee ideas often don’t make business sense, how is it possible that when employees implement their own ideas they somehow magically bring great results?

In traditional low-engagement organizations there are five reasons employee ideas are only half-baked if they were baked at all:

  1. The idea solves a problem that is not really a problem
  2. The idea addresses a problem in some other department, addressing work they do not understand
  3. The solution has negative impacts the employee has not considered or intended
  4. The cost of the solution exceeds its benefits
  5. The solution addresses a problem’s symptom not its root cause

In organizations where employee engagement is high, as I explain in Business at the Speed of Now, it is high because management has worked hard to ensure employees know where the organization is going, they understand their specific accountabilities, and they know how to effectively use facts to solve problems.

Then, when employees know they are expected to implement their own ideas they actually come up with ideas that focus on the things they can control. They also focus on improvements in the areas where they have a lot of knowledge, experience and insight.

As a manager if you routinely experience employees coming to you with half-baked ideas, you might want to look in the mirror and ask yourself why the ideas are not focused on the work the employee controls.

When employee ideas focus on the routine work they do and know well, and they have data-driven problem solving skills, the ideas almost always make good sense.

What’s been the most half-baked suggestion an employee has ever made to you?


Wouldn’t it be a dream if every employee could add $13,000 to the bottom line of your business each and every year? No need to dream because research shows that’s exactly what happens when an employee shifts from being disengaged to engaged.

Every employee has ideas for taking waste out of their routine work. Some frontline workers see simple things that can be done to improve the customer experience and others have easy-to-implement ideas that can grow revenue.

In Business at the Speed of Now I demonstrate the economics of small ideas. A simple example is that if an employee has an idea, and that idea removes a small amount of waste from a repetitive process, it doesn’t take much of an idea to save $1,000 annually. So, using simple math, if you have 100 employees and each saves $1,000 by implementing one equivalent improvement idea each, your business adds $100,000 to its bottom line.

Now, keeping the same math in mind, if each of your 100 employees implements 10 ideas annually and each saves $1,000 then your business will enjoy $1 million more on the bottom line every year.  This is how the economics of micro ingenuity pays off.

This may seem like a wild dream, but not when you realize that Toyota’s employees on average have been implementing 70 ideas annually for more than 30 years, according to Toyota expert and author Norm Bodek. At the same time General Motors implemented one idea per employee every seven years. Yes, you read that right. And this fact reveals why Toyota has grown at a much faster rate than GM, which was once the most powerful company in the world.

Toyota is a NOW company, General Motors lives in the THEN world.

Micro ingenuity is a powerful reality, and in my experience is the one true sustainable competitive advantage a company can build. But how does Toyota do it?

Next week I’ll share how Toyota focuses employee ideas on the practical reality of their daily work – the work employees can and should control.

Enthusiastically Kathy takes her idea to improve customer response time to her boss, Gabriel. Gabe is a good guy and he’s so glad he found Kathy to fill a vital position in customer service. She’s doing exactly what he had hoped she would do–bring innovative ideas to him, which he hopes will get Gabe’s boss off his back about the poor customer service satisfaction scores of the past six months.

But there’s a problem with Kathy’s idea.

To implement the change Gabe needs the cooperation of production. That requires he take the idea to his boss, who then has to work with the vice president of production. But Gabe’s boss and the VP of production don’t get along.

Dead end.

Kathy’s idea is dead on arrival and is headed straight to the idea pit. Plus, Kathy’s level of engagement is going down due to the mixed messages she is getting about bringing innovative ideas to the department.

This situation illustrates one of the common reasons good ideas die young.

What causes great ideas to be tossed into the idea pit? The top five reasons are:

  1. Poor internal working relationships/organizational politics
  2. Differing or conflicting objectives
  3. Managers who are just too busy to take time
  4. Employees who don’t know how to develop and sell an idea
  5. The absence of data to validate the idea or the problem it solves

A fraction of employees ideas ever get implemented primarily because those ideas have to go up and down the chain of command and across the organization. And unless ideas are presented with data that validate they are big enough and how the economics justify management’s time, they get discarded because of the simple reality that there are bigger fish to fry. That’s why in a LinkedIn poll we conducted 80 percent of managers said that less than 10 percent of employees’ ideas ever get implemented. Sad.

I often ask managers this question: “Is the key thing a manager can do to engage employees is to listen to their ideas and increase the number that get implemented?”

The consensus of the room is always yes.

However, in reality I don’t believe this happens. Management is already the primary bottleneck to the implementation of ideas. There is no way they can find the time to process all of the ideas employees have.

To create a high engagement organization employees must be able to implement their ideas without the direct involvement of management. I know this is provocative, but it is possible. I’ve seen it happen and what a difference it makes!

For employees to be able to take action management has a lot of work to do to enable them. Employees need to understand where the business is going, what they are accountable for, and how they are expected to solve problems.

We’re wasting a lot of creativity and passion with our out-of-date THEN management thinking, as I describe in detail in Business at the Speed of Now. In the end analysis, it won’t take enthusiastic Kathy long to learn Gabe can’t help get her great ideas implemented.

After she sees a few ideas tossed in the idea pit, she’ll stop sharing her ideas. What a waste!

What do you think causes ideas to get tossed in the idea pit?



In the world of management, employee engagement is the Holy Grail. Extensive research shows a compelling positive correlation between the level of engagement and customer satisfaction, product quality and profitability. In fact, organizations in the top quartile of employee engagement out earn their competitive peers by 22-28 percent.

In my last blog I wrote about attempts at workforce engagement through exhortation (words, talks, campaigns, encouragement, and rewards). The fatal flaw in that approach is that enthusiasm doesn’t solve underlying problems, and believing that if we just “pump” people up we’ll get sustainable improvement is naive.

A very popular and common approach to engagement is performance management, often the modern-day equivalent of management by objective. It’s underlying assumption is that if management organizes the work, and everyone is accountable for his or her part, the organization will achieve extraordinary results. Underneath this approach is a belief that it is all about individual accountability – and if we write it down and hold people to their piece of the puzzle, the business is bound to succeed. And sometimes they do succeed although it is usually only with small incremental improvements that do not move the needle forward enough.

Performance management isn’t a bad notion, but it has some fundamental flaws. First of all it holds people accountable for things they usually only have some control over. Also, in the absence of relevant concrete measures it often has many “measures” that are based on opinion rather than fact. Second, a performance management goal measured only by a task due date, and does not include a measure for the quality of the completed task because it is viewed as too subjective, is a very weak goal.

Third, if employees are not solving problems using data-driven root cause analysis, no amount of performance management mechanics will improve the customer experience or achieve financial goals.
And the reality is if performance management is used as a hammer, then everyone ends up scrambling to meet their targets even if doing so has an unintended negative consequence to the team or the organization. In the real world things change and sometimes walking away from certain objectives becomes clearly the right thing to do. But changing plans can have a consequence during that dreaded annual performance review.

Performance management can easily lead to an every-man/woman for himself/herself environment. That annual review must go well.

There are exceptions to every rule, but most performance management systems have the hollow ring of an empty metal barrel.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, one of the most influential management thinkers of the past century, called performance reviews one of the “7 Deadly Sins” of western management. He said that the system people work within and its impact on co-worker and customer interactions determines 90 to 95 percent of performance – not the individual.

Deming and others (me included) believe that performance management does far more to engender individualism, self-protection and fear than it does to serve the need every organization has for innovation.

Learn more by reading Business at the Speed of Now.

Okay. Forgive the big word. Merriam-Webster defines exhortation as “language intended to incite or encourage.” In plain speak it’s about excited talk, passionate words, and loud barking. If we talk about our organization’s goals with enough energy we will create it – that’s the underlying belief of the exhortation approach to employee engagement.

The great search for ways to engage employees involves many well-intended but misguided approaches. Exhortation. Management by objectives. Tools and techniques. Over the next three posts I’ll explore each approach and reveal why they have very limited results.

Exhortation focuses on building enthusiasm through campaigns, posters, rallies, all-hands meetings, and incentives. It’s about pulling the organization together in an auditorium with colorful banners everywhere, the surprise appearance of a marching band, a new set of exciting incentives including a trip to Hawaii for the best new idea – all in hopes of inspiring a revolution in performance.

See the famous speech: George C. Scott as General Patton

It’s all about challenging people with words in the hope that somehow magically the organization will find its way through the current maze of obstacles to success — if everyone genuinely shares the excitement and “steps up” to the challenge.

The underlying belief of exhortation is that people simply are not giving it their all, and so management’s job is to entice and encourage people to do a better job than they previously have.

We’ve all seen this done. It’s hard to deny the excitement of it all. Hope is a wonderful thing!

Engaging employees through exhortation doesn’t work because it assumes employees:

  • Understand the direction the organization is heading
  • See how what they do every day contributes to that direction
  • Know exactly that for which they are accountable
  • Are able to measure their success in meeting their goals
  • Have the skills, knowledge and tools to do their jobs successfully
  • Know how to effectively solve problems they encounter
  • Feel safe making decisions and implementing their ideas

If these elements are not in place, the exhortation approach might have some temporary impact, but in the end it is sure to disappoint everyone involved.

Wishing it doesn’t make it so.

A charming children’s book titled “Children Make Terrible Pets” tells the story of a young bear who came upon a small lost boy in the forest and wanted to take him home as a pet. His mother cautioned the bear warning that children do not make good pets.

The whole notion made me laugh because it reminded me about the reality that people by their nature are independent, curious, questioning, passionate, emotional, opinionated and frequently irritable. To conclude the opposite, that human beings are basically rational and logical, defies what we experience in each other and in ourselves. And to believe that it is human nature to sit by quietly and comply with whatever we are told to do is to misunderstand the very nature of being human.

But when we look at the workplace and our underlying management model it is highly dependent upon people doing exactly as they are told – being compliant. Even in this post-Mass Production Age employees are largely still seen as cogs in the great machine of enterprise. The enterprise relies heavily on these complicated, messy and often troublesome humans to mechanically and reliably repeat its processes delivering its goods and services.

The problem is that people are terrible machines. Rather than being able to rely on them to just do as they are told, it is their nature to question, to challenge, and to improve whatever it is they do. This is not to say people are not reliable, the problem is they just don’t enjoy being compliant for compliance’s sake. Machines do a much better job at being compliant because they are designed to only do what they do.

To get people to comply we have to disengage their human nature. We have to use something to keep them focused and doing what we want them to do. Unfortunately, the drug of choice for controlling people is fear. Fear of losing their job, fear of not fitting in, fear of not being good enough, fear of the boss, or even simply the fear of being called out in front of your peers.

Now I know fear is not a polite word and the vast majority of managers would likely deny they use fear to keep their people on the straight and narrow. But in the real world of messy, creative, thinking and feeling human beings, fear is the silent killer of human spirit and thus human innovation.

After all, without fear, people are terrible machines. So, with a little fear, most people out of necessity will begrudgingly leave their humanness at home, come to work, and try their best to simply do what they are told to do.

It’s not an issue we like to talk about, yet fear is the dominant force in play in the vast majority of workplaces. Fear to say what you really think. Fear to make a decision others may disagree with. The fear to challenge management’s assumptions. The fear to try something out of the norm.

Who wants to be embarrassed? Who wants to be criticized? Who wants to suffer the consequences of a less-than-perfect decision? Who wants to be labeled a troublemaker?

Fear paralyzes action, kills innovation, and crushes the human spirit. In the end, fear causes people to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Fear causes quiet conformance, stealing pride and the opportunity to make a difference.

Fear is the root cause for disengagement, and research by Gallup and others show that more than two-thirds of our workers do only what they are told to do and often less.

Fear has a price tag: $13,000 per employee. Research shows that engaged employees deliver this amount every year — through their actions in improving customer experience, growing revenue and reducing waste — cold, hard cash to the bottom line.

Three conclusions about fear you can take to the bank:

  • Fear is devastatingly expensive
  • Fear is an unintended consequence
  • Fear destroys the passion in work

That said, why do we have fear in the workplace? Why do we choose to use fear?

Fear is the natural consequence of the underlying system of management a leader chooses to run their business. In my book, Business at the Speed of Now, I explore this thoroughly, proving that the only way to rid an organization of fear is to redesign how the business sets goals, measures and evaluates performance, makes decisions, and solves problems. Until a leader puts in a system that makes performance shortfalls a call to action (rather than the play the blame game), and moves innovation to the people who do the work, fear will rule.

No more clear, broad and strategic opportunity exists to boost our economic performance as enterprises, and as a nation, than to tackle the ultimate human performance nemesis, fear.