Case Study: Scaling a company’s WOL movement by 5x

We sat in a conference room at the company headquarters in Germany. Their grassroots movement had reached about two hundred people in two years, and had resulted in benefits that HR found compelling. Now they wanted to reach a thousand employees in the next twelve months. 

In a few hours, we created a plan that will get them there and beyond. The plan includes three strategic elements. 

Normalize

Organic movements, whether it’s WOL or Agile or Design Thinking, typically reach only a small fraction of the company - the employees who are willing and able to trying something new. It could be less than 1% of the workforce. To reach the other 99%, you need to clearly show how the new method or tool relates to work, make it easy to practice, and integrate it into everyday processes. 

To make WOL easier to practice at work, the company in this case study opted to customize the free WOL materials (they purchased a license to do so). That enabled them to include their own examples in each week of the Circle Guides, along with technology links, testimonials from management and colleagues, and corporate branding. They purchased premium materials (mobile-friendly Video Guides and a custom-designed Circle Journal) for a fixed number of employees to have a more convenient and memorable experience. The rest would use customized PDFs on the intranet. 

To integrate WOL into existing processes, they first targeted the leadership development program. That program already has managers coming together for multi-day workshops, and is looking for ways to extend the learning and networking beyond the events in a cost-effective way. We conducted a separate workshop to design the pilot, which we intend to launch in a few months. In the meantime, we decided to target at least one more program, which will likely be on-boarding for one of the divisions. We may even include a pilot in one of their production facilities.

Globalize

Although the company is based in Germany, they have a presence in 180 countries. Like many organizations, they want to spread WOL globally as a way to increase connectivity between locations and divisions. 

A common approach for supporting and spreading a new method is to create a network of ambassadors or advocates, and we agreed to do something similar. One option was to use WOL Mentor training that consists of a two-day workshop. (This format has been offered by Sabine Kluge and me at Bosch and Daimler, and in several cross-company sessions with great success.) However, this company chose to design a new three-month program so I could offer personalized coaching over time. With this, in addition to giving Mentors the knowledge to support and spread Circles, we can help them be leading examples of what you can accomplish by Working Out Loud.

The first class of thirty WOL Mentors kicks off later this month, and we purposefully looked to include employees from locations where we want to ensure WOL can spread. We anticipate conducting another class next year.

Infrastructure

The third element of our plan isn’t as exciting as the first two, perhaps, but it is just as important: figuring out roles, responsibilities, and processes. 

A key element of scaling a WOL program, for example, is creating a cross-functional team that owns and executes the plan. (The first person to implement this idea is Katharina Krentz at Bosch, and their WOL Team continues to deliver extraordinary results.) But what is expected of each person on such a team? Can it count as work time? What if a manager says no? Can you put WOL in your development program or objectives for the year? Good answers to these questions reduce resistance and issues, and make it easier to get things done. The same goes for questions related to Mentors and sponsors.

It’s wonderful to have a grassroots movement that spreads freely, led by volunteers. And yet at some point the all-volunteer movement inevitably runs into challenges with budgets, policies, and politics. In this case, I met with the WOL Team and we began resolving some of the questions and ambiguity in that conference room in Germany. We also agreed that I’ll be an extension of their group and support them throughout the year. 

A common pattern

In more and more companies, we see how the organic WOL movement slowly grows and demonstrates the value of self-directed, peer-to-peer, experiential learning. At that point, the company has a choice. They can continue to rely on organic growth and see what happens next, or they can create a strategy that combines the employee-led movement with the leverage and reach of the institution. It’s that kind of purposeful step that makes it possible to develop skills, habits, and new perspectives at scale, making the kind of difference that inspired the grassroots movement in the first place. 


What’s the opposite of a zombie?

I still remember where I was when he used the word to describe many of our colleagues. We were leaving the office after a meeting, and the regional head of our division was talking about what he saw in the lobby at work each day.

“You look around,” he said, “and there’s no spark. They’re like zombies.” 

He wasn’t saying they were untalented or weren’t good people. Just that he noticed a palpable lack of energy. They were going through the motions of work but exhibited a kind of lifelessness.

What would the opposite of that be, and how might you help more people feel like that instead?

In Alive at Work, Professor or Organizational Behavior Dan Cable described his research on the topic, including an experiment involving the on-boarding of new employees at a Wipro call center in India. (The experiment was also popularized in The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, and replicated in other environments.)

New hires were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group went through the traditional Wipro orientation, which focused on skills training. The second went through an orientation in which a senior leader talked about the company, asked newcomers to reflect on why they might be proud to work at Wipro, and gave them a Wipro-branded sweatshirt. In the third condition, the new employees were asked about “times they used their best characteristics” and then ask to share their personal stories with other new employees in the group. At the end of the session, they were given a sweatshirt with their name on it. 

Six months later, the researchers found that the employees in the third condition had significantly higher customer satisfaction ratings, and employee retention in the group was better by 32%.

Dan Cable calls the approach and the feelings it engenders “activating your best self.” The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, calls the feeling “zest, a positive trait reflecting a person’s approach to life with anticipation, energy, and excitement.” In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte describes it as a feeling of vitality.

Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden heartfelt qualities to the workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the subject of some 5 year plan. 

What the on-boarding research shows is that even small efforts which individuate employees and humanize a company can lead to measurable business benefits.  (“But in all my years of working with companies,” Dan Cable writes, “I have not seen a company use this approach.”)

One of my goals in spreading Working Out Loud is to show we don’t need to be limited to research experiments or to a few techniques in the first days at a company. We can help employees activate their best selves on their own, throughout their career, so instead of zombies at work we have more people feeling fully alive.

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Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded

The experiments described in The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization research paper are both quite simple. Yet they capture fundamental truths about how we relate to the work we do.

Imagine you’re one of the MIT students who volunteered for the experiments described below. What would you do?

Experiment #1

In the first experiment, you’re handed a sheet of paper filled with typed letters and paid 55 cents for finding ten instances of two consecutive ones. You’ll be paid 50 cents for analyzing a second page, 45 cents for a third page, and so on. Participants perform the task under one of three conditions. (Subjects didn’t know about the other conditions or their labels.) 

In the Acknowledged condition, the subjects were asked to write their name on each sheet prior to starting the task. The instructions explained that after completing the task, they would hand the sheet over to the experimenter who would examine it and file it away in a folder. 

In the Ignored condition, the subjects were not instructed to write their name on the sheets, and in fact none did so. Moreover, the instructions explained that, after the subject completed the task, the experimenter would place the sheet on a high stack of papers. The experimenter in fact did so without examining the completed sheets. 

The Shredded condition was the same as the Ignored condition except that the instructions explained that the completed sheets would be immediately put through a paper shredder. As the subjects turned in the sheets, the experimenter shredded them without a glance.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Experiment #2 

In the second experiment, you are asked to build a kind of Lego figure called a Bionicle. You’re paid $2 for the first one you build, eleven cents less for the next one, and so on down to 2 cents for the twentieth Bionicle and beyond. In this experiment, there are two conditions.

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk. 

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Results

You can readily guess that the MIT students did more work if they were in the Acknowledged or Meaningful conditions. What most people can’t guess is just how much more work. “Almost half of the subjects in the Acknowledged condition were willing to work until the wage dropped all the way to zero,” far out-pacing the other students. Subjects in the Meaningful condition built 40% more Bionicles, and also built them faster. The small signals of recognition and purpose made a significant difference. 

One of the researchers, Dan Ariely, describes the results in a popular TED talk titled “What makes us feel good about our work?” Recognition and purpose needn’t be lofty ideals, he said. They can be as simple as someone acknowledging your work and making it possible for you to see that you contribute, even tangentially, to some objective. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had bosses who have done the equivalent of ignoring or shredding your work. What do you do when that happens? Do you hope they’ll change, or pray for a new boss? How do you feel?

Whenever I found myself working in the “pointless” condition, I would be miserable. Then I learned how to make my work visible so others could see it and use it. That made it possible for me to gain a feeling of recognition and purpose from anywhere, from anyone. It made my work better and made me happier.

“Identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply,” the researchers said, “but ignoring the dimension of meaning may be quite expensive, for employer and for society.”

What conditions are you working in? What will you do about it?

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Sunday Night Syndrome

The symptoms appear gradually. A slight knot in the stomach. A mounting sense of dread, a feeling of irritation, even anxiety, about what’s about to happen. Sunday Night Syndrome affects an alarming number of people, and it’s beginning to feel like an epidemic. 

A telltale sign is when you say, “I wish I didn’t have to go to work on Monday.” 

I suffered from SNS for most of my life. Sometimes the symptoms appeared as early as Sunday morning, even Saturday night, further spoiling the already too-short weekend escape.

Since everyone around me suffered from the same symptoms, I did nothing about it. Week after week after week. 25 years old, 35, 45, 50. I sat there like the proverbial frog placed in a pot of water on the stove, slowly dying inside, never jumping out.

Do you suffer from any signs of Sunday Night Syndrome? Or know someone who does? The only cure I’ve found is tap into a sense of self-determination, a sense that you have some control, that you’re not a victim. 

It doesn’t have to be a big leap. You don’t have to quit or change your entire life with a bold move. I find such remedies too risky anyway, and not terribly effective. Instead, I recommend a small step, an experiment of a kind: block out one hour every Monday to invest in yourself. 

Maybe you use that hour (less than 3% of your week), to work on a new skill or research a topic you’re interested in. Maybe you use the time to shape your reputation, sharing what you’re learning or doing on your intranet or LinkedIn. Maybe you form a WOL Circle and meet on Mondays, taking advantage of the structure, shared accountability, and support to make progress towards a goal you care about.

Don’t be the frog, waiting to be rescued. If you don’t invest in yourself, who will?

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Everybody Matters

“Wait,” I said, somewhat surprised, “I think I have that book.”

My wife was relating a story she heard on a podcast with Simon Sinek, the author and leadership consultant. He was talking about examples of enlightened management, and he mentioned a manufacturing company that refused to lay off employees during a downturn. The company’s somewhat strange name, “Barry-Wehmiller,” caught my attention. I went to get my copy of Everybody Matters, written by their CEO, and started reading.

Barry-Wehmiller is a 130-year old manufacturing company, made up of 11,000 employees who design and build machines that do things most of us never think about, like injecting shampoo into bottles, or making toothpaste boxes. That might not sound particularly interesting, but their financial performance is on par with Warren Buffet’s. 

More importantly, when it comes to how their employees relate to each other and to the work they do, Everybody Matters serves as an inspiring example of the way things could be. 

“Enron had wonderful cultural statements too”

Like many CEOs, Bob Chapman worked with his management team to craft a set of management principles that could guide the company. Once they did, a division president pointed out that Enron, an iconic symbol of greed, abuse, and mistreatment of its employees, also had a similar document. Here’s an excerpt:

“We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here. We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.”

Then she asked, “How is this not just going to be something that’s on the wall?”

Doing what most managers don’t do

The answer was in how Bob Chapman related to employees. When he visited a factory, he would ask questions - and he would listen to the answers. What he heard often gave him ideas for experiments to try and changes to make. Then he would ask more questions. How do you feel about these programs? What are we doing that doesn’t match up to what we say?

Workers were understandably skeptical. One factory worked asked, “If I tell you the truth, will I still have a job tomorrow?” Then he made this observation.

“Well, I see you have the word ‘trust’ near the top of this document…

Why is it when they go to the office and I go into the plant, we are treated completely differently? If the lady in accounting wanted to call home and see if her kids made it to school, she could just pick up the phone and call; I had to wait until I had a break and then use a pay phone. If I have a doctor’s appointment, I have to get my supervisor to sign off on my card and I get docked for the time; she just goes to her appointment. I had to wait for the break bell to get a cup of coffee or to use the bathroom. 

You trust them to decide when to get a cup of coffee or call home, but you don’t trust me.”

The CEO was taken aback. “How could we treat our people - thoughtful, responsible adults - with such disrespect and distrust?” Chapman, despite the objection of the personnel director, had the time clocks removed from all of their operations.

In another plant, he noticed people working in the parts storeroom were fully enclosed in a metal cage. He asked, “What did those people do wrong?” and was told, “Well, we always secure the inventory. It’s the responsible thing to do.” The cage was removed.

It wasn’t a document or set of values that made a difference. It was the actions and changes over time. The more that management listened, the more opportunities they discovered to build trust and a sense of shared humanity. 

“Our eyes were opening to things we had never noticed before. People came to understand that we truly cared and would not just pay lip service but really listen to them.”

“I’m more excited about where I’m at in my life”

As a manufacturing company, there was of course a focus on quality, and they implemented Lean Manufacturing principles. Yet Barry-Wehmiller expanded the focus beyond reducing costs and jobs to improving employee satisfaction and safety. That shift in focus changed the quality initiatives from a threat into an opportunity to contribute. But they had decades of cultural inertia to overcome.

Larry, one of their long-time workers, shared his story of how, early in his career, he had an idea for improving things.

“I think if we just change this…” 

The supervisor interrupted him: “Stop right there. We don’t pay you to think. Go back to your machine and make the part right this time.”

From that moment on, Larry didn’t share any more ideas for improvement with the organization. He maintained his silence for forty-two years!”

Randall’s experience was similar. 

“We had four supervisors who circled throughout the work area all day, making sure everyone was working. It was a very aggressive environment. You came to work every day, didn’t ask any questions or make any waves, and made sure that you got your work done.”

The CEO asked Steve, an employee in a Green Bay, Wisconsin plant, about what work was like for him. 

“Do you know what it’s like, Bob, to work in a place where you show up every morning, you punch a card, you go to your station, you’re told what to do, you’re not given the tools you need to do what you need to do, you get ten things right and nobody says a word, and you get one thing wrong and you get chewed out? You feel empty. That was basically every day.”

But over time, the approach to work changed - and so did the workers. The changes even rippled outside of work, affecting their home life.

“I’ve been part of making things better. People ask me what I think; they listen to me, and I can have a chance to impact things including my own job. When I feel respected and know I’ve done a good day’s work, I feel pretty good about myself, and I find when I feel better about myself, I’m nicer to my wife, and when I’m nicer to my wife, she talks to me.”

“I went from the guy who didn’t want to do it to now teaching it! Everything about me is different, and everything in my life has changed….It’s opened my eyes to the possibility that even though I’m fifty-two years old, I can still make a difference in the world. I’m more excited about where I’m at in my life than I’ve ever been.”

Larry, after seeing that ideas were taken seriously and implemented, stood up at a continuous improvement event and said he wanted to be an ambassador of the program because he saw that “everybody was treated with respect and dignity, something that’s too often lost in our organization.”

Now what?

The quotes about employees feeling like cogs in a machine reminded me of the quotes from Studs Terkel’s classic, Working, published in 1973. In Out of the Crisis in 1980, Deming railed against common management practices at that time, and argued for giving employees a voice and the opportunity to take pride in their work.

Decades later, not much has changed. Perhaps Barry-Wehmiller is just an exception to the rule. Perhaps the gap between where most companies are and where we need to be - in any industry - seems like too big of a leap, so we never take a step.

My hope is that Working Out Loud can help get us moving in the right direction. The people in these companies deserve better. We all deserve better.

Six degrees of co-creation

By now, most people are familiar with six degrees of separation, the idea that you are linked to every individual on the planet by a surprisingly small chain of relationships. In an increasingly connected world, it means that information and behaviors can spread quickly via social networks.

You would think this would be especially powerful at work, where a smaller population also shares some sense of identity and values. But the opposite seems to be true. Inside companies, there is typically friction and resistance that limits the number of connections and information flow.

Why? And what can we do about it?

Co-creation

Companies have long recognized this problem, and have exhorted employees to collaborate more and break down silos. But the organization chart naturally creates Us and Them in the company, and all the territorial defensiveness that goes with it. Like Hercule’s Hydra, the oft-lamented silos form and re-form no matter how many attempts are made to reorganize and get rid of them.

“Co-creation" is a fairly recent phenomenon. It purposefully “brings different parties together (for instance, a company and a group of customers), in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome.” As part of the quality movement, for example, manufacturers worked closely with suppliers to identify and fix issues.

Originally, the concept of co-creation was limited to formal arrangements between companies and customers, and later on became common between different companies, divisions, and teams. But it can go far beyond that.

Six degrees of co-creation

Today, co-creation is even easier. Instead of the starting point being an agreement between two organizations, co-creation can begin with contributions from anyone, anywhere, and rely on social networks to deliver relevant information to the people who need it or might find it useful.  

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson described this as the basis for most innovations:

“Innovative environments expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts…If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from just giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

Co-creation, writ large, thus requires an increase in both the supply and demand of knowledge. More people need to make their work visible - what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re learning - and more people need to be curious enough to search for, use, and build on the work of others. It’s the opposite of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Instead, everyone contributes, and innovations emerge from networks that form across traditional boundaries.

Good for your organization. Good for you.

Perhaps it’s easy to see why an organization would want such an environment. It would lead to greater innovation as Johnson describes, to reducing the duplication of effort and errors, and to greater agility and resilience in the face of change. That’s why so many companies are investing in culture change programs, in new social intranets, in events to inspire and encourage employees to work and think differently. Although their progress is slow, they are serious in their attempts to improve how people work together. 

But what’s in it for you as an individual? Why on earth would you share your hard-earned knowledge without knowing what you might get in return?

The answer, in short, is that it makes your world bigger. Each contribution you make is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with possibilities you would never know about otherwise. You are only a few degrees away from other people, knowledge, and resources that can help you realize more of your personal potential. But you’ll only realize that potential if you work in a more open, connected way.

Co-creation needn’t be a formal program, or something that requires permission from the boss. It’s a choice, a way of working you can start practicing today. What are you waiting for?

***

Note: This post is adapted from an article I wrote for a company’s internal employee magazine earlier this year.

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If there is an Us and Them in your organization

Like it or not, there is certainly an Us and Them in your organization. Indeed, there are many, as employees identify with different divisions, locations, and teams. Human beings desperately seek group affiliations and have evolved to quickly identify who’s in our group and who isn’t. Even infants do it.

The reason we developed this deeply-ingrained tendency most likely started with genetics. The forces of group-level natural selection led to prosocial behaviors within a group and competition between groups. That helped related members pass on their genes. But now it goes way beyond that. 

The Trolley Experiments

A classic thought experiment used in ethics can tell us a lot about our innate tribalism and how the brain works. It’s called “The Trolley Problem.” 

“You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a level that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two choices:
1. Do nothing and also the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.”

In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Prof. Richard Sapolsky describes experiments involving variations of this problem. What if one of the people were related to you? Or were of the same ethnicity? Or wore the jersey of your favorite team? 

Would that affect your choice? Of course it would. “According to one astonishing survey, 46% of women would save their own dog rather than a foreign tourist if both were menaced by a runaway bus. The evolutionary explanation is that they feel more ‘kinship’ with the dog.”

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The part of you that decides

In another version of this experiment, instead of pulling a lever, you have to push a person onto the tracks to save the other five. Experimenters gave subjects both versions while neuro-imaging their brains. They found that those pushing a person activated “emotion-related regions that respond to aversive stimuli.” Those pulling a lever did not activate those regions. For them, it was “as purely cerebral a decision as choosing which wrench to use to fix a widget.”

Remove the human element from mistreating someone, and it literally changes how you think about it. 

What to do?

Sapolsky offered no easy answers. Human behavior is complicated, the research is often contradictory, and the best you can do is point to rough probabilities.

“From massive, breathtaking barbarity to countless pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet our generic goal is not to cure us of Us/Them dichotomizing. It can’t be done…"

Instead, in the final pages he had advice for how to at least mitigate our ingrained tribal tendencies and tap into more prosocial behaviors. “Focus on the larger shared, goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.” Seeing the other person as someone you can relate to engages other parts of your brain, allowing you to feel empathy and compassion.

Perhaps you have two divisions that don’t get along, or the merger of two organizations still hasn’t resulted in one culture, or there’s friction between headquarters and the branch locations. Consider purposefully forming WOL Circles with people from the different groups. Over the twelve weeks, they’ll relate to each other as individuals who have much in common, and those human connections can serve as bridges between the groups. 

When you go beyond the labels and categories, go beyond “Them,” it can change everything.

The life & death of Quality Circles (and a more modern way to implement them)

By the time I first heard of a Quality Circle, the idea was already almost 30 years old. It’s “a group of workers who do the same or similar work, who meet regularly to identify, analyze and solve work-related problems.” I was in my twenties at the time, doing research for my first book, and I believed these Circles could make a huge difference.

The method was introduced in the 1960s by Professor Kaoru Ishikawa. By the late 1970s, more than 10 million Japanese workers were in Circles. More recently, China is reported to have formed over 20 million Circles in a a range of industries.

But in the US, at least, “quality circles are almost universally consigned to the dustbin of management techniques.”

Why? What can we do to make a good idea even better?

Out of the Crisis

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a pioneer of the quality management movement, was one of my early heroes when it came to work. His management philosophy wasn’t just for managers, but for everyone. Remarkably, his 14 principles put people at the center of quality and statistical process control.

“8. Drive out fear. 
12. Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.
13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.”

When Out of the Crisis was published, Deming was already in his 80s. He referenced Quality Control Circles (or QC-Circles) several times. Though he was familiar with their success in Japan, he had also seen failed implementations in the US, and he was not optimistic about their success there.

“The idea has appeal. The production worker can tell us a lot about what is wrong and how improvements can be made: why not tap into the source of information and help?
[But] a QC-Circle can thrive only if the management will take action on the recommendations of the Circle. Many QC-Circles are, I fear, management’s hope for a lazy way out.”

Do you treat them as human beings? Or not?

Something went wrong. QC Circles were designed to be a way for people to actively take pride in their work by having a voice in making it better. But Circles often became a management tool focused on cutting costs (and jobs), and on finding fault. 

In his book, Deming excerpted a speech from Dr. Akira Ishikawa (who became president of Texas Instruments in Japan) about why Circles worked in Japan but not in the US.

“In the U.S., a QC-Circle is normally organized as a formal staff organization, wheres a QC-Circle in Japan is an informal group of workers. A manager in Japan serves as an advisor or consultant. In the U.S., a manager of production, to get rid of the job, appoints facilitators for Quality of Work Life, Employee Involvement, Employee Participation, QC-Circles, all of which disintegrate. 
The second contrast is the selection of the theme for a meeting and the way in which the meeting is guided. In the U.S., the selection of a theme or project and how to proceed on it are proposed by a manager. In contrast, in Japan, the things are decided by the initiative of the member-workers.
The third feature is the difference in hours for a meeting. A meeting in the U.S. is held within working hours. A meeting in Japan may be held during working hours, during the lunch period, or after working hours.
In the U.S., monetary reward for a suggestion goes to the individual. In Japan, the benefit is distributed to all employees. Recognition of group achievement supersedes monetary benefit to the individual.”

These aren’t just procedural or technical differences. They’re fundamental. The way that Circles are implemented can determine whether or not employees tap into their innate needs for control, competence, and connection. 

“One Japanese plant manager who turned an unproductive U.S. factory into a profitable venture in less than three months told me: ‘It is simple. You treat American workers as human beings with ordinary needs and values. They react like human beings.’
Once the superficial, adversarial relationship between managers and workers is eliminated, they are more likely to pull together during difficult times and to defend their common interest in the firm’s health. Without a cultural revolution in management, quality control circles will not produce the desired effects in America.”

“WOL for Quality”

When Deming observed Quality Circles, it was well before enterprise social networks, before 4 billion people were using the Internet, before modern research on why people do what they do. Today, it’s easier than ever for employees in any environment to make their ideas visible, to tap into what others in the company know, and to connect and collaborate with them. 

One experiment I plan to work on is to apply the basic elements of WOL Circles - a voluntary, self-organized, safe and confidential space using structured guides - to making work better in a wider range of environments. Call it “WOL for Manufacturing” or “WOL for Hospitals” or even “WOL in the Classroom.”

To suit each specific kind of environment, I would adapt the guides to include different ways for Circles to form and interact, different contributions to make, and different technologies for making them. If a company is already spreading WOL Circles, then such an experiment would be a natural extension, a way to include people in non-office environments.

Perhaps, instead of waiting for “the cultural revolution in management” that Deming thought was necessary, we can take action now. Perhaps we finally have the tools and practices we need to create grassroots movements that matter, that can show management what’s possible and inspire them to enable broader institutional changes.

Taking off the mask

Imagine you’re in a large room full of people you don’t know. You feel slightly awkward, unsure where to start, as you continue to look for familiar faces. Then, amidst an attempt to make small talk with someone, you discover you have something in common, and you grab onto it like a rope connecting the two of you.

Maybe you shared a small thing, like where you were born or went to school or that you have children of the same age. Or maybe it’s something you experienced, like losing someone to a disease, or suffering from one yourself. That exchange, that bond, can fundamentally change how you relate to each other. 

Now imagine that room is actually your company, full of thousands of people from across the world. 

The mask we wear

“The fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.” wrote Haruki Murakami. But at work, most of us feel compelled to hide behind a mask of cool professionalism. As a result, our “greatest asset” is reduced to an impersonal sameness, and the chances for human connection are greatly reduced.

You needn’t wear all your personal information on your sleeve or announce it in every meeting. You just have to be your whole self, willing and open to offer what makes you you. When you feel you can do that, you experience what neuroscientists might call an “internal resonance” or “coherence.” producing a sense of confidence and clarity.

You've almost certainly felt the negative effects of "putting on a good face" at work, despite what was happening around you and inside you.

A simple example at work

I wrote recently about a workshop with 550 engineers. We formed them into 110 groups of five people, and this time we tried something different: we started by asking them to list 10 facts about themselves. I offered my own example.

“Your facts can include things that describe you. For example, I live in New York City. I have five children. My wife is Japanese. I’m a vegetarian. My grandparents emigrated from Italy.
They can also be things you’ve experienced, both pleasant and unpleasant. I had a wonderful holiday in Provence. I was laid off. My mother was a diabetic.
List ten things that make you you.”

After a short period of reflection and list-making, we asked them to share some of their facts within their small groups, looking for connections and things they found remarkable. The energy in the room changed. It was no longer 550 engineers with specific titles in a big company. It was 550 human beings, each with their own story. The trust and interaction flowed more freely, more naturally.

There’s a longer version of this exercise in Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle. It’s called “So much to offer!” It’s there to help people experience that it’s okay to be yourself at work, that sharing who you are can be a kind of contribution, and the basis of a meaningful connection with someone.

We don’t need to shed our individuality when we come to the office. “People are our greatest asset” only if we let them be real people, only if we let ourselves be our true selves.

"Mask" by Henry Moore

"Mask" by Henry Moore

I thought work wasn’t supposed to be like this

I still remember a response to one of my earliest posts, one about finding meaning and fulfillment at work. “You’re nuts,” she wrote. “People go to work for money. They go home for meaning and fulfillment.”

I’ve thought about that for years. What if she was right, and I was encouraging people to try anddiscover something that work simply wasn’t designed to offer? How cruel that would be.

Fast forward several years. I’m laying on a yoga mat in an office in a large manufacturing company in Germany. A group of us had worked together for the last three days, and much of it was quite intense. Before my trip, I happened to know that one of them was a yoga instructor. (We were connected on Instagram and other channels, even those of us who barely knew each other.) I half-kiddingly suggested that we have a class after work on Friday. Others responded, and there we were, in a wide array of yoga attire, on our mats among the chairs and flip charts. The class was beautiful, almost spiritual. Afterwards, we hugged each other goodbye.

This kind of connection happened throughout the week. Instead of just small talk in between meetings, we talked about personal aspirations and life experiences. We discovered shared interests as well as new possibilities for how we might collaborate and innovate. By deepening relationships, we changed the very nature of the work we were doing as well as what we might do together in the future.

Oh, and we ate together and laughed. A lot. 

It's true that these particular people are extraordinary. And yet I’ve had similar experiences with other people in other cities in other companies. I’ve observed tremendous generosity and vulnerability, creativity and intelligence, in their work with me as well as with their colleagues. It's those behaviors that lead to meaning and fulfillment.

Once we shed the facade of cool professionalism, we were able to develop a sense of relatedness that opened up all sorts of wonderful possibilities. 

It wasn't just work or just personal. It was human - and it was beautiful.