by Gary Kapanowski

Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up

In the morning when the day is new

And after having spent the day together

Hold each other close the whole night through

Happy times together we've been spending

I wish that every kiss was never ending

Wouldn't it be nice” (1)

In a recent LinkedIn post, theleanmag’s Pedro Monteiro identified several benefits of using positive questioning or encouragement when introducing lean and kata during a discussion in Mark Graban’s Lean Whiskey podcast with Jamie Flinchbaugh and Deondra Wardelle(2).

In my article, I will provide some specific examples of using positive encouragement to assist you in any continuous improvement process, team meeting, or problem-solving project. The focus on encouragement than questioning is important to bring unity and connection for everyone involved. Questioning has an element of one-way communication which can prevent everyone from participating and understanding. Positive encouragement enhances participation and overall communication which connects with lean. I hope the article will provide a new look at team dynamics to assist your lean journey to benefit your life and business.

To expand on the positive encouragement idea, I thought of elements of connecting better with individuals. One way is through music. Many of us can remember music lyrics, sometimes too often. I enjoy introducing an element of music to bring a deeper connection and engagement with participants for training or work scenarios but also for the longer sustaining goal of memory. Using the Beach Boy’s song "Wouldn't It Be Nice" draws upon each person’s dreams of romantic freedom, a release of entanglements or restrictions, and melancholic lyrics and joyous sounds arrangement used in modern music for retention. Music is a great connector to allow for creativity and expression needed to understand and improve.

Having fun with music and engaging our team is just one step in the process for organizing our lean development. How do we put together a system to assist everyone with assessing our process in the current and future state? How do we know we are using our lean fundamentals properly? I’m sure each of us has asked ourselves and others similar questions. I know I have.

Positive Engagement System

Introducing positive engagement by asking “Wouldn’t it be nice?” allows everyone to bring themselves into the discussion and make it personal. The idea is to provide a format or platform for everyone involved to have a voice and identify the current condition for everyone to hear and see. The best experts are always the people directly engaged with the process, sometimes called subject matter experts. They know it, they live it, and they have ideas to make it better. Bringing their engagement and knowledge to the surface is more than just needed but critical for the success of any continuous improvement or problem-solving exercise. In Figure 1: Positive Engagement System, a simple 5 steps process for developing a positive engagement system is illustrated to provide guidance and examples for implementation.

figure 1

A first step is introduction. When the team is brought together, there can be moments of uneasiness and awkwardness due to lack of working together on the subject matter. To start the process and team cohesion, it is great to have a catchy positive phrase or song lyric on index cards for everyone to write what is on their mind in regards to the process or situation and placed in a bowl. The index cards can then be read and written down as a starting point or “ice breaker” to allow for everyone to start understanding the issues. The goal of the first step is to allow for the voices to be heard without identifying the writer for autonomy along with transparency of the risks and preconceived thoughts on the process. We have also established the beginnings of respect for people. After the “ice breaker”, everyone will have a solid idea of the difficulty of the task at hand and underlying issues. Our baseline is now established for the perception of the process and can be used as a reflection point to see how our journey is progressing.

For our second step, we need to have more than just a catchy phrase or song lyric to continue with positive encouragement. Introducing the concept of “HOPE” is essential for positive engagement. Hope allows for the people in the process to believe change is possible. Active listening and team involvement will provide an environment for sentiments of hope to rise and encourage participation. Our first step provides the beginning point for everyone to realize their voices matter and are valued. The second step is to focus on each person’s view of “Wouldn’t it be nice?” on the process for either their role or the process in general. The collection of the responses can be on index cards or paper depending on the complexity of the process and roles. In either event, record the results for everyone to hear and see. Also, having people read other’s responses engages everyone with understanding the process and not just their individual aspects of the process. The goal for the second step is to develop our team’s connectivity and provide a safe environment for engagement. The step can be repeated for each meeting and recorded to develop a routine and skill for engagement, an element of sustainment and foster a kata – mentor / mentee relationship.

Another element to provide the environment of hope for positive engagement is to avoid judgement and personal inquiries which can limit the discussions and engagement from everyone involved. The focus is on the process and not the person, following the fundamentals for lean and respect for people. Identifying early that the process and not the person our concentration allows for everyone to realize their work integrity is not for examination but the process for everyone is considered for improvement.

In various brainstorming or problem-solving methods, the goal is not to “solve the problem quickly” just to complete the task and not truly solving the problem but to allow for ideas to be heard and assimilated for understanding of the problem. For positive engagement to flourish with hope, everyone’s voice is essential. Nothing is devalued or discounted. Everyone is appreciated and equal. Respect for people is honored. There will be a time and place for focusing on the specific issues but not at this point. The team leader’s role is to assure each team member is participating and if not, see where you can provide a role to allow for their participation, either publicly or privately, such as during breaks or other group activities to spur engagement.

The third step for positive engagement is to collectively summarize the responses gathered. Introducing models such as cause and effect (fishbone / Ishikawa) diagrams is a good starting point. It allows for the team to see how the responses are collecting toward a goal or solving a problem statement as an example. The format is transparent if aspects of the process aren’t fully understood or identified. The team lead can direct the group to try other brainstorming ideas or go and see the problem environment for more data collecting and understanding. As the team gains understanding, the diagram will change. It is important to save and date each diagram to visualize and discuss the progress of the team and celebrate the success and opportunities. During the reflection, an opportunity for another positive engagement exercise of “Wouldn’t it be nice?” or more specific dialog of process activity can enlighten further insight of understanding the process.

The fourth step is to introduce creativity. Everyone has different thought processes and skills. To leverage everyone’s individual and collective strengths, allowing creativity will enhance the positive engagement system. The invention cycle provides an understanding that everyone is creative through observation and learning, by connecting and combining ideas, by reframing problems, and moving beyond the first right answer (3). In short, imagination leads to creativity; creativity leads to innovation; innovation leads to entrepreneurship or the final expression which is our focus with positive engagement. For positive engagement, there are two aspects of the entrepreneurship stage of creativity that can be introduced into any setting to enhance participation namely charisma and storytelling.

To introduce charisma in positive engagement, we can focus on the following three elements: presence, warmth, and power (4). Presence involves how we are viewed by others namely having an inviting and receptive posture. Warmth is communicated through body language and eye contact usually associated with looking everyone in the eye for personal connection. Power is your perception of your ability to affect the world around you sometimes noted as body language confidence to indicate the team’s implementation will improve the process. To assist teams and individual, routine exercises can develop these skills in everyone to produce charisma in positive encouragement. Team exercises can include a review by others on how we communicate either physically or virtually to show an inviting or closed ended charisma. Individual exercises include viewing each person as the only one in the room when conversing. Both reviews will improve the engagement of the team since people can converse differently in either group or individual scenarios.

The other aspect is to inspire others through storytelling through using a simple “story spine” structure. Anyone can organize the task or project into a fairy tale structure for everyone to identity, understand, and inspire others to want to do what you need to have completed (5). There is a powerful connection by using storytelling since 63% of people recalled a story from a presentation then only 5% recalling a statistic (6).

"To introduce charisma in positive engagement, we can focus on the following three elements: presence, warmth, and power"

The “story spine” has a basic structure using the following phrases: Once upon a time, Every day, But one day, Because of that, Until finally, And ever since then. Utilizing “story spine” storytelling during team meetings to introduce new information to add to the cause-and-effect diagrams or other process understanding information allows for everyone to participate in a simple and structured format for clarity. The following is a simple example using accounts receivable payment days as our “story spine” storytelling example:

  • Once upon a time, the accounting department at ABC Company experienced 0% of their accounts receivable over 180 days.

  • Every day, the staff accountants reviewed the invoices why they were not paid on the scheduled 90 days.

  • But one day, a staff accountant noticed the date for payment calculated 180 days instead of 90 days

  • Because of that, the staff accountants reviewed what caused the calculation to become 180 days.

  • Because of that, the staff accountants calculated the amount of accounts receivables that contain the 180 day error to determine the effect of cash flow.

  • Until finally, the staff accountants corrected the error of data calculation to 90 days.

  • And ever since then, the company has not experienced any change in their accounts receivable payment days.

The fifth step is to provide for a diverse team environment. Including diversity will benefit your team especially when attempting to solve a problem or complete a task that exceeds the capacity of any one individual. The combination of ability and diversity will generate the “diversity bonus” which includes improved problem solving, increased innovation, expressing creativity and more accurate predictions which lead to better performance and results due to cognitive and identity diversity working separately and together (7). Thus, diverse teams outperform homogenous groups on complex tasks (8).

Diverse teams by their nature will produce creative an innovate solutions and avoiding replicating similar outcomes such as offering a broader and more adaptable range of products and services (9). One of the factors involved is allowing all team members the openness of meeting to discuss ideas of which positive engagement supports. The open environment of diversity provides the right format in positive engagement for open dialog and discussion bringing new solutions for business problems.

Engaging everyone with a diverse thinking environment will allow for more insight and knowledge than just one or a few people asking questions. Collective intelligence, a synergistic or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration in decision making, is created during the system of positive engagement to benefit understanding through a diversity of knowledge working in unison (10). The group dynamic will foster more insight in reviewing and using of other lean tools such as the 5 Whys for root cause identification.

Diverse teams can provide momentum of camaraderie, progress, and success to handle the next problem to solve (11). Team members report increased productivity and employee satisfaction (12). This leads to attracting and retain the best talent leading for greater opportunity for personal and professional growth and sustaining gains made through positive engagement.

Implementing an organization wide diverse culture and thought process might be beyond the team’s scope and difficult to implement in a short time horizon. However, there are actions the team can perform. One is to incorporate other team members and subject matter experts either inside or outside the organization to broaden the reach of knowledge and understanding (13). Another is to foster internal diversity growth by seeking new team members and developing new skill sets that are required for team tasks. Both are beneficial to enhance diverse thought into the team.

Learn By Doing

After understanding the positive engagement system, it’s time to learn by doing. Start implementing aspects of the steps the next time you are participating in a team meeting or problem-solving activity. In the next issue, a continuation of the positive engagement system will include opportunities for teams to enhance their results by just doing, recording, and reflecting.


Developing a positive engagement system will provide an environment for working with teams, better understanding of the process, enhanced decision-making process, effective root cause analysis, support respect for people, and sustainment to continuously improve. Incorporating l