“Why are we here? To learn, to make a difference, and to have fun.” – W. Edwards Deming
Many years ago, I was fortunate enough on a couple occasions to attend W. Edward Deming’s 4-day seminar. Early in both seminars, Dr. Deming asked attendees, “Why are we here?” After waiting in silence and repeating the question, he would offer up the notion that we are here “to learn, to make a difference, and to have fun.”
Of all that I learned from Dr. Deming, this statement stuck with me the most. When I searched the internet to make sure I remembered the quote correctly, I found that it seemed to have also made an impact on many other people.
I’ve had a variety of jobs throughout my career, in both management and advisory positions and thought about these words many times. It is such a simple and logical statement that one would think is a normal part of leading people – unfortunately, this is not the case. After being promoted into leadership positions, many organizations leave people to their own devices to figure out how to do it well. So rather than learning, making a difference, and having fun, team members end up stressed, overworked, and looking for their next job.
What does it mean to help people learn, make a difference, and have fun? It’s something I’ve thought about for many years and have figured out at least what it means to me.
Besides the fact that many people want to grow in their careers, there is an innate drive in most of us to learn. Recent studies have concluded that learning has physical effects on the brain which can influence motivation, energy, and confidence.
Studies also show, though, that the desire to learn can be buried by poor teaching and coaching experiences. To prevent this and help team members learn requires that leaders have the interest and ability to coach in real situations using problems that people face every day. They must be able to make coaching a normal part of their job and ensure people are continually improving existing skills while developing new ones. This can only happen when leaders understand that they must also continue to develop their own skills and abilities.
Make a Difference
There have been numerous examples and studies on motivation that point to things like engagement and purpose as critical factors in driving motivation. When a person understands how the work he or she does contributes to the achievement of a worthwhile purpose, energy level increases as does the motivation to make it happen. On the other hand, a purpose that is nonexistent or unclear can lead people to disconnect and focus on work as little more than a way to receive a paycheck.
Enabling a true connection to the purpose requires that leaders establish a clear and logical purpose – often referred to in lean terms as True North – and that they continually drive the organization toward its achievement. The company’s leaders must define the organization’s true north and never waver in steering toward it. It should go without saying but, to be effective, true north should not change as the organization changes its leaders.
This is one of the things Deming meant when referring to constancy of purpose. When the reason for an organization’s existence is clear and unchanging, people will better understand how the work they do contributes to its achievement and work hard to make it happen. As much as people want to believe in a true north and be a part of its journey, they will always be looking for examples that demonstrate a lack of commitment or constancy. This is a defense mechanism people have developed over the years to protect themselves from the disappointment that results from believing in something that turns out to be false.
Although there are a number of studies available, it should not take extensive research to understand the benefits of creating a work environment where people have fun. The positive effects that happiness has on stress, motivation, productivity, teamwork, and employee turnover are well known.
Learning and making a difference are two factors that can lead to having fun at work, but relying on these things alone will not assure continued success or prevent burnout. I tend to think of learning and making a difference as having positive effects on performance, and having fun as something that prevents negative effects. The human brain cannot continually perform at high levels without regular downtime and preventive maintenance. Having fun is one way to ensure the maintenance is happening.
Putting it Together
Learning, making a difference, and having fun is something that should be critical parts of any leadership system. It is a clear way to demonstrate the respect for people that is so important to continually improving results for an organization. Like much of leadership and lean thinking, though, it is much more difficult to apply than it appears on the surface. There are often cultural and systemic barriers that need to be overcome to ensure its continued success.
I have to say that I cringe whenever I hear a leader say that he or she doesn’t want people to have “too much fun” because of a fear that they will forget about work. This is a clear sign that the leader lacks the understanding that having fun is part of a system that includes learning and making a difference, and that all three must be present to work effectively.
The more I’ve reflected on these three simple drivers of motivation, the more I realized that they apply to my own personal life as much as they do to organizational success. They are three factors that truly connect the work-life balance that virtually everyone wants to achieve.