Creating a game at work invites engagement | Mike Cook

Sometimes when I use the term “game” in the same sentence with “business,” the response I get goes something like this: “You can’t make a game out of business. Business is serious.” After we talk about it, most people usually recognize that my idea of business as a game does make some sense. Business is a game grown-ups play for real money. There’s winning, losing, prizes and surprises just like any good game.

So if business is a game, albeit a serious one, why don’t we do more to bring out the game-like qualities in the workplace? After all, most of us do enjoy playing games of many types and we can get pretty invested while we are playing. The average North American workplace is currently operating with about 30 percent of the workforce reporting being fully engaged; hardly what you’d expect from a great game.

Last week I had an opportunity to visit a medical device manufacturing facility. A good friend recently became chief operating officer there and he wanted me to see the work he had done with the workforce to reduce production errors. He’d been bugging me about it and even though my primary interests lie more with employee engagement I decided that maybe I had something to learn from his quality initiatives.

I have to admit, I had not made a connection between quality initiatives and employee engagement. When I arrived he took me out on the production floor to watch the process he had been using for about four months. This company produces custom products and they are complex and expensive for both manufacturers and users. Because of the complexity, the opportunities for error are many. Errors are costly both in terms of money and time to delivery. Historically, errors at the company had taken a toll on its competitiveness in an industry that has become global.

Out on the production floor I saw charts indicating that significant progress has been made in error reduction even in the short time my friend has been there. The statistics were certainly impressive but my educational experience began with the next step.

A few years back Mike Rother, teacher and researcher at the University of Michigan, translated the legendary Toyota manufacturing process into language and concepts that can be applied to virtually any industry and any type of workforce. Rother has a book, of course, but he also operates the Toyota Kata website, which I would encourage you to visit. My friend has become well-acquainted with the methods developed by Rother and his primary attraction to the approach is the impact it has on employee engagement.

After our review of the charts we visited the actual Kata process. The Japanese word “Kata” means form.  From what I witnessed, I’d say the real meaning is Eureka!

I saw production workers from a variety of backgrounds — Vietnamese, South American, Russian, as well as American — working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to bring about improvements in the various stages of the production process. These were folks with a variety of educational, language and cultural differences who were coming together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to work collaboratively on what they had in common — the day-to-day working experience.

Within moments of the Kata process getting underway it was obvious these people were playing a game! They were involved, they were passionate, they exhibited initiative and creativity, all while listening intently to what their colleagues had to share. What I found so attractive about the process was that it gave these production workers the chance to solve their own problems. Solutions began as experiments, were tested, then evaluated and implemented all in the midst of the production process. This aspect of the work has historically been reserved for engineers and supervisors and the workers merely reported the problems and then stood back. The people in the Kata process were encouraged to experiment and when there experiments didn’t work out they were applauded for what they had learned. Imagine, employees encouraged to take risks.

Of course, the process is not without flaws. There is still a lot of learning going on but the level of enthusiasm for playing the game was undeniable. Was there 100 percent engagement? No, but there was a heck of a lot more than 30 percent.

So how about your workplace? Do you have to adopt the full-blown Toyota system? Start with small steps. When employees report problems ask them to propose solutions, try them and report their findings. You may be surprised to find they’ve been waiting for you to ask.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.


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