Action research, a pivotal concept in change initiatives, revolves around high engagement and performance enhancement. Originating from the work of Kurt Levine, this approach, which emphasizes the need for research before taking action, ensures stakeholder involvement in both data collection and action planning. A striking example from a pajama factory illustrates its effectiveness: when workers set their production targets, it resulted in significant improvements. The key principles include setting attainable goals, collaborating in groups rather than individually, and addressing both driving and restraining forces. This approach’s strength lies in involving stakeholders in research and empowering them to drive change, fostering high engagement and performance improvement.
Action research. High engagement. Performance improvement. This action research is one of the core models and principles involved in any kind of change initiative, whether you’re talking about individuals or groups or even very, very large systems. And as you’ll see, it combines two things. It combines the engagement of the people involved in improving performance. And here’s how it goes. It’s the brainchild of Kurt Lewin, who was born in Poland and went to school in Germany, became a professor at a university in Germany. And fortunately for us, in the mid-1930s, left Germany because his daughter, because they were Jewish, his daughter was not allowed to go to university. And he said, I won’t live in a country where my children can’t go to school. So he came to America, and there’s another video on him I think will be a fabulous thing to watch sometime. On how he started. Basically, this field of applied behavioral science. We call him the grandfather of this field. All the models of change and transformation, all the things that are going on now, today, many of them, most of them can be traced back to some of the early work that he and some of his colleagues in the United Kingdom did back in the 1940s and 1950s. So here’s action research, very, very important. He said there should be no action without research. Don’t just do stuff like managers were quite often going in and trying things, trying to make things happen.
And he said, don’t take any action without first doing research. And don’t do any research unless you’re going to do something with it. By the way, many organizations will have these really important attitude surveys or culture surveys. And what Kurt Lewin would say is don’t just do research and have a handful of people like, look at it and try to figure out what it means. Use the research with the people that gave you the numbers. My mentor, Ron Lippert, who was one of the first graduate students of Kurt Lewin, said, the people that give you the data, own the data. It’s their data. They’re lending it to the executives or lending it to human resources in the hopes that they’ll get some return on that investment, Kurt would say, involve the people in the research and then involve them in figuring out what to do to take action. You’ll see this a little bit later. It can be traced back to a really fascinating study that was done at a pajama factory in Virginia, not too far from where I was born and raised. That went on from 1939 to 1947. And it was actually an old-timey pajama factory where you had mostly women working in these machines making pajamas. And they were organized and paid and rewarded by what was called piecework production. So it meant that if you worked there, you got paid by how many pieces, how many pajamas, how many sleeves, or how many legs or whatever you sewed in your shift.
So there was a way of counting and keeping track of how many pieces were created during your shift. A person for each individual person. So what Kurt Lewin and his people did was two of his students went in and they did a really weird thing. I mean, now we wouldn’t think twice about it, but they interviewed not only management but also interviewed some of the people, some of the women, and some of the supervisors who were there. And they found out that there were some high-performing people and there were some, you know, average-performing people. And no matter what management did, they were some of the best-paid people in that part of Virginia, best motivated, best. And they just weren’t producing. So the question was why? Well, they got together these groups of people, and they got some of the high-performing people together. And they said, you know, do you think you could raise production? They said, absolutely. And so they set targets which had never been reached before, like they were down around 60 some. And they said, well, we’ll hit 85, and we’ll do it in five weeks. Well, they did it in like about 5 or 6 days and they sustained it. Well, that was shocking. Like how could they do this? So then they took a group of average producers and they got them together and invited them to set targets for themselves.
And they hit something in the 70s. So it was like a huge, huge improvement. And the pajama shop was losing money. So management said, we’ll go along with whatever recommendations you make. So they created a cross-sectional group of some high performers and some average performers who came up with recommendations for management. And these are some of the principles that they came up with. You want to set attainable targets with the workers. They found that when the workers actually set the targets, they set them higher and they achieved them. You want to work with groups and not individuals. Instead of paying an individual for making more pajamas in a shift, you pay the whole group for their group effort. Because what happens when you make a decision in a group to hit a certain target? The decision in the group and by the group kind of freezes the individual’s commitment and means that they feel accountable not just for themselves but to the group for the success of that particular thing. This is a very important thing that was discovered there. So Lewin came up with this idea of what he called the field of forces. This is the way things are now. In this case, the production over here is the production that we want. We want to move the change in this direction.
There are all these driving forces that we have management doing this, the incentive programs, the training, and all that. And the reason it’s not happening is we have all these restraining forces over here that are somehow negating or neutralizing the efforts of management and supervisors and others to increase production. It resulted in what Lewin called a quasi-stationary equilibrium. Now, what they figured out is based on Lewin’s concept that in this field of forces, as soon as the restraining forces are less powerful than the driving forces, when that happens, there’s movement that occurs. And this thing actually goes from one from here it moves and the line actually moves now. So what happened was by involving the people in the setting of the targets and in the brainstorming ways that productivity might be improved. These restraining forces, which were kind of the way they thought about their work, some of the unconscious patterns and so forth were reduced, and the productivity improved. That’s the power of action. Research involving people in making something happen. Now, here’s my kind of working definition of action research finding out what is actually happening in the situation with the stakeholders, which is the research part. And then getting all that data out on the table in a safe environment where it can be discussed by those involved who are also empowered to take action, like management says, okay, we’ll we’ll take your recommendations when that happens. That by itself has the power to change the people, the situation, and the system.
This is the power of action research, high engagement, performance improvement, engage the people in improving things. Recently I was in a conversation with a senior bank executive. He said, we need you to come and do a training program for these 3 or 4000 people on empowerment. Could you do that? And I said, absolutely. And I said, but I never would. And he said, you won’t do it. Why not? And I said, well, it’d be a waste of time. Why? Because, well, I explained training as a driving force. Right. And he said, what would you do? I said, well, why not just if you’re trying to do a training program on engagement and empowerment, why not just engage them? And he thought, whoa, what a concept. So instead of training people on engagement, just engage them in the process. And that has the power to do this. This is my diagram. If you want to know how I have taken action research and turned it into steps for people that are trying to initiate a change process, look in the library for the breakthrough process and take a look at this, and you’ll see this is just my way. There’s lots of ways to do it, but this is my way of taking the principles of action research and turning it into something that you, as an internal or an external consultant, can do to create change.
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