Breaking news from next month’s Harvard Business Review: kaizen is good for morale.

Well, HBR didn’t put it that way exactly. The (somewhat pompously titled) article, “Breakthrough Ideas for 2010,” argues that the top motivator of performance is progress, even if it’s incremental:

On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak. On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.

Although the article doesn’t talk about kaizen or about the elements of lean leadership, many of the ideas come straight from The Gold Mine or The Lean Manager. The authors recommend that managers “scrupulously avoid impeding progress by changing goals autocratically, being indecisive, or holding up resources.” They go on to suggest that

If you are a high-ranking manager, take great care to clarify overall goals, ensure that people’s efforts are properly supported, and refrain from exerting time pressure so intense that minor glitches are perceived as crises rather than learning opportunities. Cultivate a culture of helpfulness. While you’re at it, you can facilitate progress in a more direct way: Roll up your sleeves and pitch in. Of course, all these efforts will not only keep people working with gusto but also get the job done faster.

Nothing wrong with these suggestions. I especially like the recommendation that minor glitches should be seen as learning activities. That fits nicely with lean thinking. But I can’t escape the feeling that there’s something wrong when high-ranking managers have to be told by the august HBR to, um, actually help out with some of the work. Shouldn’t this be common sense, rather than “breakthrough” managerial thinking?

The article also challenges the widely held belief that recognition is the most important factor motivating workers. According to the authors’ research, recognition ranked last. (Which makes you wonder about the methodology of all these studies if the results are so different.) But then they go on to say that

the diaries revealed that [recognition] does indeed motivate workers and lift their moods. So managers should celebrate progress, even the incremental sort. But there will be nothing to recognize if people aren’t genuinely moving forward—and as a practical matter, recognition can’t happen every day.

I’m not sure what salt mine the authors work in, but where I come from, recognition doesn’t have to be a large cash prize given out in front of the whole company. In fact, it’s quite possible to say “Thank you -- I appreciate the work you did” every day.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let me go back to the key premise: that improvement and progress aren’t just good for the company, they’re good for the workers. And that’s a virtuous circle we can all benefit from.