In the past, anyone approaching the supervision of people as a game might be accused of frivolity. Now, that strategy is being embraced with all seriousness.
The shift in attitude is marked by a change in nomenclature: not game, but "gamification." The term, first applied by researchers to patterns of human behavior, describes the application of game-like elements to non-game contexts - in this case, employee relations.
The concept becomes of particular value, according to business theorists, when the work in question is highly routine. In such cases, they say, an employee is more like to make mistakes that can disrupt the entire operation. Examples include errors on the assembly line, or in a fast-moving distribution facility.
Gamification comes into the picture as a means of boosting employee quality, productivity, safety and overall engagement, says Brandon White, director of quality and regulatory affairs with logistics service provider Kenco. He sees value in its application to repetitive tasks such as picking and shipping. It can be used to drive metrics for efficiency and financial performance, he says.
Gamification can help companies to pursue continuous improvement in operations that might otherwise plateau over time. That’s especially important in organizations that pursue a Lean model, where managers are constantly on the lookout for waste and inefficiency.
White says games can be utilized from the very start of an employee’s tenure with the company. Kenco uses a loose quiz-show format, similar to Jeopardy!, to drive home crucial details communicated during training sessions. Winners receive recognition and perhaps a small gift for their accurate answers.
Kenco employees on the warehouse floor are expected to maintain a high level of accuracy and efficiency in basic tasks such as shipping, scanning and operation of a forklift. The procedures for conducting such tasks can be complex and extensive, and the game-show model helps to underscore them in an entertaining way, White says.
Kenco is in the early stages of applying the tenets of gamification to its operations, with plans to extend the concept well beyond the quiz format. Productivity challenges, involving the use of leaderboards to identify “winners,” are among the techniques that could be deployed to encourage high levels of worker performance, according to White.
The effort comes out of Kenco’s Innovation Lab, an initiative launched in 2015 to identify industry trends and develop new ideas for communicating with customers, employees and supply-chain partners. Internally, the company sees the concept primarily as a means of boosting productivity, as opposed to error reduction.
It starts with the establishment of clear performance standards within the warehouse. A steering committee conducts time studies to determine how long it should take for workers to complete key tasks, such as scanning and picking. Engineers then translate those findings into algorithms that can be used to track productivity. Leaderboards announce the results to teams on the floor.
As envisioned by White, the tactic is similar to that of drawing up labor-management standards by which employees are tracked and graded on a continuous basis. But White sees gamification as “taking it to another level.” Merely setting out worker standards is less effective than tying them to dashboards and making them visible to all employees. That gives them “incentives beyond financial performance,” he says. “Also recognition from their peers and supervisors.”
One could argue that mere recognition or small prizes are no replacement for real compensation based on superior performance. Placed in a competitive environment, even one that treats it as a game, workers are likely to argue that they should be rewarded in the form of bonuses or higher wages, not symbolic gifts or a pat on the back.
White acknowledges that non-monetary rewards could be insufficient. He has seen operations where workers are rewarded with bonuses based on the degree to which performance levels top their expected rates of productivity.
While gamification could provide a short-term tool for boosting worker performance, it runs the risk of being viewed as a management fad that eventually gets shelved for lack of interest, energy, or changes in the executive suite. Think of the raft of “Quality” celebrations that dominated so many corporate environments decades ago. At some point, the banners, slogans, and T-shirts were quietly put away. Management “innovators” went on the next new idea.
White says companies must foster a culture of constant creativity in order for gamification efforts to avoid a similar fate. He says managers should listen to employees with ideas on how to improve the system, and find new ways of ensuring their enthusiastic engagement — whether or not that involves contests and quiz shows.
More important than any game, perhaps, is a culture steeped in tight production controls such as the Shingo Model, created by the Japanese industrial engineer Shigeo Shingo and used as the basis of the famed Toyota Production System. Kenco’s own Kenco Operating System is modeled on that initiative, serving as the backbone of the company’s efforts toward continuous improvement, according to White.
As for the use of gamification techniques at Kenco, “there’s more to be done,” White says. “The concept is relatively new. There’s always room for improvement overall.”