I popped into a donut shop while doing research for my book on employee motivation. Well, not just any donut shop--this happened to be the busiest Dunkin' Donuts store in the world, located outside Boston on Route 18 in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. This one store serves between 2,000 and 3,000 cups of coffee per day.

I was there to speak to the fired-up employees who keep the lines of customers moving, and keep customers coming back. I wanted to know (as I always do when I visit high-performance businesses) what it is that motivates these people to work as hard as they do.

Amy McCaul, age 21 at the time of our meeting, works the front counter. Does her job ever become kind of boring? "No way," she says with a big smile. "It's fun. It's busy, time goes by fast, you're always doing something."

Fun? Did she say fun? As a customer I have personally set foot in other donut stores, and whatever it was the employees there were having, I'm pretty sure fun wasn't it.

McCaul's co-worker Tracy Brown works in the small out-building from which drive-through customers are served. Must be pretty dull work in pretty cramped quarters, right? "No," she blurts without hesitation, "I like it. The time goes by fast, because I deal with millions and millions of customers every day." Brown describes how her regular customers keep coming back. "I like seeing them every single day," she says. "That's what makes me happy."

I ask Brown if one day she might like to own a business similar to the one she presently works for. Her boisterous reply is, "Yes, I would like this one."

Both of these employees independently mention their impression that "time goes by fast" on the job. This is of course the very opposite of the traditional "clock watcher" image of an employee bored stiff. But why does time seem to pass quickly in this workplace (and in every other similarly energized business I've visited and written about)? Time passing quickly is a characteristic usually associated with a pleasant game, hobby, or pastime--forms of play. To help us understand how some businesses make work feel more like play, we need to review the four elements that make play itself enjoyable.

1. The element of challenge: Ask any employee who dislikes his or her job to give a reason, and the reply will almost certainly include words like "boring," "repetitious" and "pointless."

Now, visit any bowling alley. Each time a bowler manages to knock all the pins down, a mechanical contraption promptly sets them right back up again. An observer unfamiliar with the game might conclude this must surely rank as one of the most boring, repetitious and pointless human activities ever devised.

Yet the bowlers themselves seem to having a grand old time. In fact, many of them can't wait to get away from their boring jobs in order to pay money for the pleasure of knocking pins down over and over again.

Would bowling be even more fun if the pins were closer, and therefore easier to knock down. Everyone understands that it's precisely the challenge of attempting something difficult that gives structured play activities like bowling, golf and billiards their basic appeal.

Children's games like paddle-ball, leapfrog, skip rope and others are often based on a "keep the kettle boiling" theme. In businesses like our donut store, the challenge is to "keep the lines moving through the store," "keep the cars flowing through the drive-through," "keep the shelves stocked with fresh product." The whole operation is one big keep-the-kettle-boiling game from opening time to closing time, and the workers love the challenge.

Instilling a Sense of 'Winning'

2. A clear set of rules: Another factor that makes play activities like bowling more satisfying than work: The basic objective--and the rules by which this objective can and cannot be achieved--are clearly understood by all the players. Everyone's trying to accomplish exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way.

In most business settings, if there's a primary objective at all, it can usually be boiled down to "make more money." There's no single clear approach, however, for achieving this objective. Priorities shift and change, and are often in conflict with each other. In this game, the rules are not only unclear, they keep changing. And in this game, a "win" is exciting news for management--but it doesn't mean much for the employees who made it happen. The boss can talk about improved "job security," but to the workers that just sounds like "plenty more frustrating and unfulfilling workdays comin' your way."

The kinds of high-energy businesses I profile in my book are all aligned toward a single clear objective: delighting every customer every time. The workers know in advance they won't be able to achieve this perfect score, much as bowlers and golfers know ahead of time their own scores will not be perfect. But it is the pursuit of a perfect score that makes the game challenging and fun. In these businesses, everyone understands the rules: You must do nothing to harm the organization financially (or in any other way) while you strive to deliver a delightful customer experience. And in these businesses, a "win" is exciting for the employees themselves, because it translates into positive customer feedback, the most meaningful and lasting employee motivator of them all. (A win is exciting for management, too, of course, since higher levels of customer satisfaction generate repeat business, positive word of mouth and a powerful competitive advantage overall.)

3. A scoring mechanism for immediate feedback: All play activities allow participants to track how well they and the other players are doing at all times. Would these activities be as enjoyable if this form of immediate feedback were removed? How much fun would bowling or golf be, for example, if the players could not see the pins or the cup, and had their scores mailed to them at home weeks after the game?

In many business settings, workers receive positive feedback about their work only during formal "performance review" meetings. From a motivational point of view, this is usually too little, too late.

Employees in places focused on customer delight receive immediate feedback every day in the form of appreciative comments from happy customers, generous tips and the cheerful return of "regulars." Their work earns these employees a succession of "high scores" that keep them motivated.

4. The satisfaction of winning: Our bowling-alley observer watching the game for the first time may be surprised to see the reaction each time a player succeeds in knocking all the pins down at once. The spontaneous hoots and leaps of triumph suggest bowlers find this accomplishment extremely satisfying.

Understanding what this kind of satisfaction feels like is key to understanding employee motivation in the workplace. Knocking pins down over and over again may seem a pointless exercise--until it's turned into a challenging competitive activity with clear rules and a means of immediately tracking performance. With these elements in place, the activity suddenly becomes fun and satisfying.

Energized businesses such as our busy donut shop challenge workers to attempt something difficult--keep a steady high-volume flow of customers happy and coming back. There are clear rules, and the employees receive continuous immediate feedback from the customers themselves. And when they "score" (i.e., when the feedback makes it clear they're delivering a delightful experience and attracting business away from competitors), their satisfaction can be as great as that experienced by players in any structured game.

For managers in less-enthusiastic business settings, the question should not be, "How do I change my workers so they'll be more motivated on the job?" Instead, the question should become, "How do I change the job to make it more motivational for my workers?"

Virtually all businesses have a particular cultural element in common--one that does more damage to employee motivation than any other. Eliminating this one biggest motivation-killer can transform any workplace into a much more motivational setting for all employees, as I'll uncover in part two of this series.

Author and consultant Paul Levesque has spent many years interviewing management and staff in all kinds of high-performance businesses all over the world. In the first of a three-part series based on his new bookMotivation, Levesque summarizes the key elements such businesses use to turn work into an energizing play-like activity for their employees.