7 ways to optimise your Human Capital


Previous blog described the many types of possible waste in organisations. Though Taiichi Ohno – in his time – mentioned 7 types, you have read the many others to pay attention at.  

To my opinion and experience, the waste of non-utilised human skills, talent & creativity – say the Human Capital – is (one of) the most important these days. Particularly in service organisations, where the human factor is (one of) the biggest differentiator to customer’s choice.

Even after an extreme optimisation and automation of your business processes, there will probably remain human tasks left, which will be determinative for your organisational performance. Hence, let’s have a look at interesting psychological insights enabling you to minimize the waste of human talent in your organisation, and how you could use these in practice.

Mental Flow

Though one of previous blogs was about Flow, this was about logistical Flow, say the ‘hard’ version of Flow. Mental Flow – or the ‘soft’ version of Flow, and also known as “the zone” – is rather related to psychology, however also important to achieve Operational Excellence.

What is mental Flow?

smileyAccording to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow is a deep feeling of satisfaction or happiness (not to be confused with delectation or pleasure). He uses this term to refer to the external force with which people ‘in Flow’ are carried away to high levels of happiness and performance, comparable to an energy flow, while being busy with a task or any type of work.

A basic characteristic of experiencing Flow is that while you are executing a task (usually a complex one), it requires your full attention.

Why is Flow so important?

People being more regularly in Flow are not only happier, but they work considerably harder and more instead of gossipping, or instead of surfing on the web, or spending precious time to any other non productive activities. Hence, if you can bring a maximum of mental Flow in your organisation, you will obviously minimise Lean’s 8th type of waste and optimise your organisation’s Human Capital.

Conditional characteristics of Flow

In his book “Good Business – Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes following 8 conditions for someone to experience Flow:

  • Clear goal(s) to get “in Flow” while working, it is essential that the person knows which tasks s/he has to do by when. Knowing the higher goal(s) to which his or her tasks contribute will really make the difference.
  • Immediate feedback: people must be timely (ideally in nearly real-time) informed whether the work they deliver is right. This feedback may come from colleagues or a manager, but it is even better when the worker can get this information from the activity itself.


  • Challenges & Skills must be in balance: too big challenges will cause stress or anxiety, on a longer term possibly leading to a burn-out. While a person lacking enough challenge will be bored ; eventually being bored-out . Both – anxiety and boredom – will cause a decrease of attention. Beside diagram illustrates how someone should ‘grow’ in a job: first acquiring the skills needed, then being increasingly challenged to use these until next level where new skills will be required. And so constantly increasing his/her expertise.   
  • Deep concentration: when above conditions are fulfilled, the involvement can become so high that action and awareness  merge in a seamless wave of energy.
  • The present is what matters: being in Flow with a task, the person fully ignores worries and problems that are nagging in everyday life
  • Control is No problem: when working in a Flow, the person has a strong sense of being in control of the situation.
  • The sense of time is altered: when in a Flow, time is perceived as flying by.
  • Loss of ego: while immersed in the experience, the worker not only tends to forget worries and problems, but also his/her very self.

How to bring (mental) Flow in your organisation?

Let’s see how managers can bring Flow in their organisation, based on above knowledge. Here are 7 ways to optimise your Human Capital.

1. Make goals clear for everyone

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi stresses the importance of meaning, referring to the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who stated that people are not happy by wanting to be happy, but happiness is rather the unattented consequence of working for a goal greater than oneself. This is what intrinsic motivation is about. In contrast with extrinsic motivation, which is fed by personal benefits, like a salary or any other type of remuneration.

clear-goalHence, the mission and values – of your organisation – should be clear for all employees, at whatever level: not only for the management, but also (even mainly) for people at operational levels. It is they who will ultimately determine whether your vision & strategy have been realised.

Even more important is that everyone also knows how his/her specific job & tasks contribute to the “greater goal”, i.e. the organisational goals and mission, as explained and illustrated in the first paragraph of this blog.

As an example: even though few people will associate the army with peace, an officer of the airforce ever told me how important his job – and especially his team – is for peace keeping (in Europe).

Also in less predefined activities – like meetings – it is important to make goals clear, and whenever possible, to link these to higher goals.

2. Provide Feedback

People need to know whether their work brings them closer to their professional goal(s). Ignoring how well your work is, is not only inefficient (you may loose lots of time working wrongly), but is moreover frustrating for the person carrying it out. Even more important is that when there is no feedback, there will be neither learning, nor growth for the worker, what eventually leads to apathy.

There are 3 main sources of feedback:

  • Feedback from other people: workers (may) expect feedback from managers, colleagues, customers, mentors, etc. Also for managers it is important to get feedback, including the one from their staff. No need to tell how important it is to give feedback on the work and not on the worker him-/herself.
  • Feedback from the work itself: some jobs have implicit (built-in) performance measures, like the maximum time to achieve a task, or a maximum number of defects, etc. flow
  • Feedback from one’s personal norms: sometimes, only subjective norms or standards are applicable. These may be determined by the manager, as long as s/he is also lead by example. A sales representative for instance may decide for himself to visit 8 customers a day, while nobody tells him to do so; as long as he will achieve his sales target.

3. Take care of people’s Personal Growth

Zooming onto the Challenges – Skills balance described here above, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses beside diagram to illustrate how important professional growth is for employees to be as often as possible in Flow. As a manager, you should strive to have all your staff being as often as possible in the states at the top right corner: Arousal, Control, but ideal in the Flow one.

Hiring the right people

This obviously starts with hiring the right persons. Not only from a Skills & experience point of view, but including the right match between organisational – say cultural – values versus personal values. It is usually easier for someone to acquire new skills than to drop personal values & beliefs. People trained in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) know the concept of the 6 “logical levels”  depicted here below, that illustrates how values & beliefs are more fundamental (i.e. more deeply anchored or at a ‘higher level’) than capabilities, like skills.

nlp-logical-levelsJim Collins, in his book “Good to Great – Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, even states that an organisation should first hire people with the right values and beliefs, before defining its detailed mission and strategy together with them. He even dedicated an entire chapter – titled “First who… than what” – to explain the underlying arguments of this opinion.

Keep people challenged

Coming back to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow principle, it means that to keep people sustainably motivated, you – as a manager – will need to regularly offer them new challenges and to support these with the acquisition of new skills accordingly.  

4. Allow to focus

No need to tell that too frequent interruptions are counterproductive due to distraction. Especially in these days where people hardly ignore any sound of their smartphones, interruptions are a non-negligible source of stress and loss of concentration. For tasks where concentration is key, managers should foresee an environment where the workers have the possibility to work in isolation. Telework may also be a possibility, as long as the worker is not disturbed there as well.  

5. Give the opportunity for own control

Give the people the latitude of control, so they can feel that they have the choice over how they perform their job. When goals are clear and the worker knows what is expected, while feedback is sufficient, then there is no need for tight control; certainly not for micromanagement that rather kills Flow.

6. Enable time flexibilitytime-flexibility

Unless for jobs where time dependency is unavoidable – like work on an assembly line – leaving people the freedom how they best organise their work will be more motivating and more easily bring them in Flow.

7. Take care of others’ ego

Though losing your ego is a characteristic of being in Flow, respecting your workers’ ego is key to enable them to get in Flow. While managers better limit their ego in presence of their team. Flaunting power – as a manager – is not wise, and is certainly not done when it happens by dressing down workers.

I hope that this blog helps to convince you that Lean’s philosophy is not synonym of blind cost cutting, even when it is about banning waste.

Eventually, I would like to reflect on something I learned during my MBA-studies, more particularly in the HR-course. In Western organisations, more particularly Anglo-Saxon corporates, the second best paid Chief Executives (after the CEO) are usually CFO’s. While in Japanes companies, the 2nd best paid Chief Executives are most often HR-managers. A coincidence that Lean’s roots are Japanese…?

Please share your experience – or opinion – with this type of waste (of any subject related to Lean or process management) in the below Comment box of this blog. I make Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning a gift (English paper version, delivered for free – in Europe) to the 3 first readers who write any instructive comment. People outside Europe, or for those who were not the 3 first to comment, will get a digital version of another recommendable book cited in this blog after commenting here below.

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