The Brownie of Blednoch and Lean Six Sigma Belt Compensation

Minitab Blog Editor 11 February, 2015

I typically attend a few Lean Six Sigma conferences each year, and at each there is at least one session about compensating belts. Any number of ideas exist out there, but they commonly include systems that provide a percentage of savings as a portion of pay or provide a bonus for meeting target project savings. There are always issues with these pay schemes, including the fact that belt compensation may be tied to the value of projects assigned to them or to the accuracy of estimated savings when the project was assigned (an inexact science at best).

There is a larger fallacy with these schemes, and to explain it you must know the story of the Brownie of Blednoch by William Nicholson. You can find the original poem as well as adapted stories online, but I'll re-tell the story here in my own words:the brownie of blednoch

In the town of Blednoch the people are gathered in the town square one day when they hear the sound of humming coming up the road and see a strange-looking, bearded man approaching.  As he gets closer the townspeople realized he is humming "Any work for Aiken-Drum?  Any work for Aiken-Drum?"  Granny, the wisest person in town, recognizes the man as a "Brownie" and explains to the townspeople that Brownies are the hardest working people anywhere and had simple needs.

Aiken-Drum asks if the townspeople have any work he can do and says he does not need money, clothing, or fancy living but just a warm, dry place to sleep and something warm to drink at bedtime. The town blacksmith gives Aiken-Drum a horse blanket and allows him to sleep in a corner in his barn, and each night Granny brought him a warm drink. From that day on, the townspeople are amazed at the deeds he performs, often without being asked. A farmer finds his sheep had been led into the barn just before a storm. The town church finally gets built. One sick resident has Aiken-Drum show up, clean her entire house, and cook soup for her. The baker finds his wagon wheel repaired on the morning he is to deliver goods to town. Even the kids love Aiken-Drum, who often builds fires and sings songs and plays games with them.

Everyone is extremely pleased with the Brownie's work. Except Miss Daisy, who thinks it's unfair that Aiken-Drum isn't better compensated for his outstanding work. The other townspeople try to convince Miss Daisy that Brownies are driven by the love of their work for others and not by material things, but she can't be swayed and one evening while he is out working she leaves him some new pants.

In the morning, Aiken-Drum is gone and never seen again.

If you are trying to assign a specific dollar figure to the work your belts do, you are Miss Daisy.

In the highly-recommended book Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahnemann, the difference between social norms and business norms are explained quite clearly. One example to illustrate the difference would be needing assembling a new shed: ask a close friend for help, and they'll likely give you their whole Saturday morning. Ask the same friend and offer them $20, and they'll likely come up with an excuse as they feel insulted that you think their Saturday morning and energy is only worth $20. You can't put a price on the motivating factors behind the hard work.

You see, the best work comes from those driven by something other than the material compensation.

I'm not suggesting that we not pay belts—of course there is a market value for the job they do and should be compensated fairly. But if we want belts to work like Brownies, instead of expending time and energy on fine-tuning a bonus and compensation system tied to the tasks they do, we would be much better off considering what drives the best of the best and how we can provide that. Some examples:

  1. If the belt's job requires regular travel to work on projects, make their travel less stressful by allowing them to choose their own flights and accommodations or simplify their expense-reporting procedures. If any travel is extended, offer to pay airfare for their family and for appropriate accommodations.
  2. Offer the belt several project options and allow them to choose to work on the project that best aligns with their interests.
  3. The best belts are driven by a passion to reach towards perfection and a disdain for waste and defects—so do not assign projects in an area where management or process owners will not appreciate striving for this. Several programs I am familiar with use a pull system, where managers have to ask that a project be done in their area.
  4. Many belts feel their work is very important to the success of the organization but is not noticed by many outside of the improvement program and the areas they've done projects in. A high-level executive personally contacting the belt and expressing gratitude AND familiarity with what a particular project accomplished will achieve a level of employee satisfaction that a bonus cannot.

These are just some examples. What matters most is that a fair compensation is offered and after that there is no more haggling over money—instead, focus on the real drivers behind the belt's work and satisfy those to the best of your ability. I know of no organization that has created Brownies through financial compensation and bonuses, but know of many driven belts who do great work because their company values what they are trying to achieve and tries to remove all barriers to that success.

Turn your belts into Brownies and you'll hear humming in the halls!