Incentives Must be Done Right

Incentives can play a huge role in driving results upward, but only if they’re part of a larger continuous improvement system.

Last year, I worked with a company that had a gain-sharing plan for hourly people. Employees worked to create gains that they, in turn, shared. It was a relatively decent design but its implementation was flawed. As a result, it became perceived as a form of entitlement—something employees deserved. Even worse, they had no idea how to create the gains.

Here are some characteristics of good incentive plans:

The right targets
There should be a clear line of sight between what people do and what they can influence. Expecting hourly people to connect to an earnings-per-share goal is a bit of a stretch. But connecting them to reducing scrap or re-work in their area provides line of sight. The incentive needs to focus on targets that drive results because results fund the payout. If there’s no gain, there’s no payout.

High involvement

People are more apt to actively participate in an incentive plan that they’ve helped design and set targets to achieve. They will work like the devil to hit the stretch targets that they have set. In most cases, people will beat their own goals, even if they are high.

Leaders at all levels, but especially first line leaders, need to promote high involvement and a disciplined continuous improvement process that fosters root cause identification, problem solving, solution testing and refinement.

An information-rich environment

Goals and actual performance information should be as available to the incentive plan participants as a sporting event scoreboard is available to the players on the field. And they should have the information they need when they need it to improve work and results. This includes information about the workings of the business and what it takes to “improve the score.”

The right payout at the right time
Payouts should be large enough to get attention, yet frequent enough to connect the work that was improved with the results that were created. For example, if the incentive is paid annually, the line of sight between work and results is so long that most employees forget the plan exists. Monthly or quarterly payouts (with a form of hold-back in case the company tanks late in the year) keep the effort, results and payout connected.

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