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Creating Effective Incentive Systems: Ken Iverson on the Principles that Unleash Human Potential

The issue of setting compensation seems to be struggled with in every organization. Most are pretty lazy about it — hiring someone else to take care of it and failing to think through the incentives they're creating.

Some companies are different. Nucor, a steel company, under the leadership of Ken Iverson is one of them. Iverson details his thoughts in the masterful Plain Talk. (This isn't the first time we've covered Iverson's wisdom on running a company. His genius was exploiting unrecognized simplicities.)

Ken Iverson

Under Iverson, compensation at Nucor had two components: A small but meaningful base pay and a very simple weekly bonus based on production. Outside of benefits and a little profit sharing, that was it. Simple, straightforward, and powerful. No subjective criteria.

The real beauty of Nucor's compensation system, in my opinion, is that there is nothing to discuss. Daily output and corresponding bonus earnings are posted, so employees know exactly what their bonus will be before they tear open their pay envelopes. No judgment. No negotiation. No surprises.

There are three beautiful aspects to the design of this program.

The first is that it's eminently clear what you will be paid for: making more steel. It's so simple. Your compensation is never at the hands of someone who may or may not like you. You have no reason to say it's unfair: You signed up for it when you signed on. If you worked at Nucor under Iverson, the first thought you had every morning was how to make more steel.

Secondly, it offers immediate feedback. Human nature, and the nature of many other higher-thinking animals, is such that immediate rewards work better than delayed rewards. B.F. Skinner knew this, but some corporations haven't figured it out yet. A year-end bonus isn't nearly as effective as a weekly bonus. A year-end review isn't nearly as useful as immediate feedback. It's simple.

And lastly, this program gave Nucor's employees tremendous skin in the game. Everyone was working towards the same goal. Rowing in the same direction. And that makes a tremendous difference.

Nucor's great success in harnessing incentives reminds me of Charlie Munger's discussion on Federal Express:

From all business, my favorite case on incentives is Federal Express. The heart and soul of their system—which creates the integrity of the product—is having all their airplanes come to one place in the middle of the night and shift all the packages from plane to plane. If there are delays, the whole operation can’t deliver a product full of integrity to Federal Express customers.

And it was always screwed up. They could never get it done on time. They tried everything—moral suasion, threats, you name it. And nothing worked.

Finally, somebody got the idea to pay all these people not so much an hour, but so much a shift—and when it’s all done, they can all go home. Well, their problems cleared up overnight.

So getting the incentives right is a very, very important lesson. It was not obvious to Federal Express what the solution was. But maybe now, it will hereafter more often be obvious to you.

Does this mean every company should model their compensation program after a steel company? Hell no. But you want to think about it. It's easy to come up with a suboptimal incentive system — just look around corporate America. The difference between a suboptimal compensation system and an optimal one is huge.

The principles for an effective compensation system work at all companies. Let's invert — think about the common reasons that compensation systems likely fail. First, most of them are hard to explain. They are overly complicated and wordy. (At Nucor everyone from the CEO to the newest employee could explain it.) Second, the rewards are small and untimely. Yearly bonuses anyone? Third, the program has to be designed in a way that the people in it (and the people running it) can't game it. Finally, everyone is subject to the same plan.

Done poorly, compensation systems foster a culture of individualism and gaming. Done properly, however, they unleash the potential of all employees.