As authors, we keep hoping to change things for the better by proposing innovative ideas and practices. Readers’ reactions to Lead With Respect have been overwhelmingly that companies and organizations need more “respect”. I can’t argue with that, but that is not quite the point we were trying to make.
Let me use a simile. Historically, the greatest benefit of democracy is not electing the right leader (how could we ever do that? power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and candidates are already well on the way just by the fact of being candidates) but by ensuring peaceful transition from one leader to the next, and one party to the next. With Lead With Respect, similarly our aim was not to plead financial leaders (obsessed with making the numbers and the next target acquisition) to better “respect” their customers and their employees – how likely is that? Our purpose was to sketch another form of leadership altogether.
In particular, Freddy and I wanted to highlight the five following distinctive points:
1. Leadership is paramount – not systems. In the early 90s, Freddy built one of the first “systems” outside of Toyota in a supplier company, and I’ve helped him design several more since. Yes, complete with initiatives, indicators, roadmaps, workshop plans and maturity audits – the works. But the point was never the system in itself. Freddy always saw systems as a scaffolding to help willing leaders learn faster, rather than have to go through his own learning journey that started visiting a Toyota plant back in 1975. His daily work was about developing site managers, group leaders, and team leaders, every day, in all departments. When he left the company, too often his successors missed that point and focused on maintaining the bureaucracy of the “system” alive, with – unsurprisingly – disappointing results.
2. Lead the improvement – not the status quo. The second distinctive feature of “lean leadership” is that a leader’s job is to lead change for the better, not optimize existing indicators by keeping things going as they are. When he visited each plant in the company he ran, Freddy’s question to the site manager was: “What is your major problem right now and how do you intend to improve the site’s performance?” Clarity from the leader was expected in terms of having clearly formulated the challenge and the plan to improve. This is a radical departure from strategies that are all about starting from scratch and going after this or that, ignoring both the weight of legacy and the wisdom of experience. Improvement is about improving. As a leader, which aspect of your organization do you intend to lead others in improving?
3. Express challenges to employees through visual management. One technique unique to lean that we may have undersold in Lead With Respect is visual management or visual control. Indeed, as you read you’ll find constant reference to visualization of work: truck preparation areas, truck departure board, project charts, production analysis boards, problem solving A3s, andon lights, and so on. Visualization is a core lean leadership skill because it transmits the challenge without having to explain it. For instance if “right first time” is a key part of the strategy, then a light that flashes every time the code crashed will express exactly that – every one in the room gets intuitively that we have to do respond quickly when the light flashes and then investigate what caused it to crash. Visual management is the practice that translates top executive challenges into concrete problems for staff, right here and now without having to over-explain.
4. Help people overcome their personal obstacles. In order to succeed in overcoming challenges, leaders must accept that each person will encounter specific obstacles that result from a mix of their own competence (no two people are strong or weak on the same skills), their personality, and the local context and situation. As a leader, Freddy’s job was to figure out the fit between the local leader and local challenges and see if the gaps were manageable – no point in setting up someone to fail and there is nothing disgraceful in offering another job better suited to someone’s strengths. In any specific situation, Freddy saw his role has trying to get the person to understand what was expected of her and see her way through the changes and learning this entailed. This is by no means easy and is often messy. The point is that leadership is personal and can’t be delegated to systems or procedures. Every person has a different story, faces different challenges, and is on a different journey. The role of the leader is to help them progress on their path successfully.
5. Learn from kaizen and change your mind. The key lesson Freddy was taught by his Toyota sensei was how, as a CEO, he was supposed to go to the workspace and observe kaizen efforts both to support kaizen but, just as importantly, to learn from it. One time he was discussing a quality problem on an assembly cell Toyota had been coaching for two years and, at some point, he realized the operators had changed the tools so smoothly his had missed the actual tool change. Freddy then realized both what “autonomous cells” really meant and the business impact of teaching this across his entire group. He had many similar aha! moments in observing how his staff solved quality problems for customers. It turns out kaizen is an essential practice not just for shopfloor continuous improvement but to teach senior leaders what customers actually prefer and how employees can really add value in processes. Developing a kaizen mind radically changes one’s approach to strategy and investment.
As you can see, respect is about committing to employee’s success – employees have a right to succeed with us, not a duty, and we need to define this success together. In practice, respect is about keeping employees safe from accidents and harassment, about truly listening to the obstacles they face, about developing everyone’s skill and autonomy, and indeed, about using every person to the fullest of their abilities. No debate. But as long as we keep exhorting traditional leaders to be “more respectful” we miss the point. The point is to develop a new kind of leadership which is equally hard-nosed about achieving objectives, but that does this with people, not to them.
I’m very grateful to Tom Ehrenfeld, Lead With Respect’s chief editor, because he saw that right away. The working title for the book was “Respect” but he had the insight to see that was not what the book was about, and suggested “Lead With Respect.” Indeed, we should not separate lead on one side (what to do and how to get it done) from respect on the other (treat people respectfully), but define a leadership path where leadership and respect are fundamentally entwined.