Stretch, Don't Break - 5 ways to grow your people

stretch armstrong picMihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the renowned Hungarian psychology professor is noted for, among other things, his research on work and flow (continuous flow from the perspective of the worker being completely absorbed in a task and within a state of intrinsic motivation - "being in the groove"). He addresses the dynamic between the level of skill and challenge. For example, if an employee's skill level is high for a task in which the challenge is low, there's a real risk of boredom. If the challenge is very high and the skill level is low, then we end up in the realm of anxiety - usually not very productive!

So, one test for lean leaders is how to match the skill or readiness with a given challenge. How do we stretch the employee, so that they learn and grow...without breaking them? In other words, how can we effectively straddle the zone of anxiety and the zone of boredom or frustration?

There's at least five things that the lean leader can do:

  1. Provide the employees with an understanding of the challenge. Think change management basics - proof of the need, vision, strategy, impact on them, etc.
  2. Train and coach the employees in order to increase their skill level and readiness. In Lean, there are new ways of thinking, a new language and a host of tools, systems and principles. A large part of an effective lean leader's job is to humbly deliver teaching. And, by the way, we can't expect people to become experts right away. Frankly, most everyone does not have to become an expert, but they need basic competency.
  3. Provide a safe, but appropriately challenging forum to apply the new skills. Kaizen events are a great real life place to learn the art and science of continuous improvement. I often tell kaizen team members that the greatest skill that they can bring to a kaizen event is common sense and a passion for improvement and that we will learn together. No use wigging out.
  4. Make people think. Don't give people the answers. Help guide and challenge them to apply PDCA thinking - to become experimentalists. This means that people will often fail. Lean leaders must see these failures as learning opportunities.
  5. Apply emotional intelligence.  Lean leaders must be attuned to the emotions of their employees.  Using something like Chuck Wolfe's Emotion Roadmap, they can identify the current feelings (i.e., anxiety), understand the gap between them and the ideal feelings (i.e., enthusiasm) and then work to close the gap.

So, what do you think? What are some of your strategies for effectively stretching people?

There are 5 Comments

Don's picture

This is right on the money.
When starting out, picking your teams carefully to balance their abilities and knowledge is critical.
Too often, employees who are new to the process begin with in elevated state of anxiety. The best way to manage this is to begin with a review of the process, the basic training for the event and then small steps. As confidence quickly grows (and you'll know it), you know you've been successful in handling their stress.

markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the comment! In the area of kaizen teams, team chemistry, stakeholder representation, lean experience, technical and behavioral skills are important selection criteria. The teams also need to feel a certain level of stress, balanced with a confidence that is partly based upon experience and direct observation of how leadership "had the back" of prior teams - in other words, trust. Effective lean leadership will have a empowering, engaging and challenging (in a good way) presence during the pre-event planning, kick-off meeting, team leader meetings, report-out and follow-through activities.


Philippine Outsourcing's picture

This is a pertinent post. A very interesting and well written article! I truly appreciate your effort to inform us. Valuable thoughts and advices. I read your topic with great interest! Many thanks for sharing this. Glad I came across this site. - Jaime

markrhamel's picture

Hi Jamie,

Thanks for joining in on the conversation. I am glad that you found the post value added. We definitely need to set people up to win and with that, be more emotionally intelligent when applying kaizen.

Best regards,

Jason Presley's picture

very good post,I like the first way the work and deals to the employers the dynamic of skill and challenge.It is really an effort to work w/ the flow.