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How do you define respect for people?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Can you be more specific about “respect” in lean? The term is being used in our company but I fear it sounds just like “every one has to be a leader” and the rest of management speak.

I hear you, and when touching on people matters, there’s always that risk. In the end, it’s about the attitude of the individual manager and how much he or she cares about customers and employees as opposed to how much they want to play the game to get ahead or, in Frederick Taylor’s words, to simply “soldier on” to get the job done and stay out of trouble.

“Respect” in lean, as I understand it, is rather specific and can’t be looked at out of the context of kaizen. It certainly doesn’t have the usual sense of either admiration or, at the other extreme, simply being polite. If anything, it probably would be closer to Merriam-Webster’s meaning of “an act of giving particular attention,” close to consideration. Let’s try to put back the term in the lean context, and then see what it means from the gemba.

Lean is a definite and explicit attempt to link corporate destiny and personal fulfillment. The ideal is that on the one hand by practicing lean the business becomes better able to cope with changing conditions, and on the other it does so by getting employees to participate in the system and thus discover the satisfaction of designing their own jobs and managing their own work. Yes, I know, totally management speak, but bear with me. It is the stated ideal.

In practice, lean is essentially a system to shorten the time it takes to convert customer demands into product deliveries and to do so by improving (1) quality, (2) productivity and (3) flexibility. Lean is basically achieved by a visual system of pulling work, which will reveal problems at any and every step of operations. This “lowering the water in the lake" (reducing inventory) to reveal the rocks (problems) is the background for kaizen, continuous improvement involving small step forward, many of these devised, designed and implemented by the employees who do the job themselves.

There is clearly every where, but more likely in western company, a tendency by managers to solve the problems revealed by the lean pull system by high-level re-engineering (kaikaku, it’s sometimes called), but this misses completely the specificity of lean: kaizen. Kaizen activities are specifically initiatives by operators and their team leaders to improve work procedures and equipment. Certainly, they sometimes lead to wider process-improvement activities, but the spirit of kaizen is that it provides and opportunity for employees to exercise their initiative, judgment and creativity.

The clear goal of kaizen activities is that members of a production team work together to discover ways to raise quality, smooth the flow of production, and improve their working conditions. Now, this can’t happen without “respect” from the management line. Respect in the present sense, is a word that encompasses three broad meanings: (1) making every effort to understand the other’s person point of view and taking responsibility to help; (2) developing the person’s ability to analyze and solve their own problems and 3) supporting them in implementing their own solutions – and thus, ideally, through their wish to contribute, have employees partake in the joy of creation (yes, yes, I know, again, management speak alert).

One-Second Waste

Making every effort to understand employees’ point of view is the first point where “respect” can turn Dilbertian with any manager. For instance, let’s go to the gemba and into the prototype shop of a high-tech company. On a side of the floor where prototypes are assembled and tested, is a small store of common components, a dozen of shelves, run by a lady who’s job is to supply the shop. She complains of being isolated, sitting at her computer desk amongst the shelves, and so bothered by the noise and constant going-ons that she can’t hear herself think.

What the managers also know because they live there, is that she used to sit in the open next to the shop, in the office part, but she didn’t get on with her co-workers, and so ended up having her desk moved to the store. And there lies the rub: it’s so easy to simply ignore that person because she’s generally considered as a pain in the neck on the one side and on the other, there is no obvious way to keep the noise level down other than build a complex and costly noise barrier around the store (which would also limit flexibility in the prototype shop, as shelves can be moved according to the size of the machines tested).

The path of least resistance for any manager, is to dismiss employee concerns, because they often seem small compared to the “real business issues” the company is facing. Respect, in this sense is forcing oneself to HEAR: sure, markets are tough, sales are slow, and so on, but the employee is facing a problem every cycle, and that’s their world. Respect is about actively looking for “one second waste” and seeing the difficulties people are experiencing and taking responsibility for them.

This is rather hard on the gemba, and requires the constant training of gemba visits essentially focused on that level of issues, forgetting for the moment the higher level process or business concerns, but looking for muri, mura and muda within one operator cycle – which is how the “7 wastes” of overproduction, waiting, conveyance, processing, inventory, motion and correction came to be formulated. This is also how they can be misinterpreted by managers seeking waste-reduction hits, rather than using the list to focus on work within the individual operator’s work cycle: foot motion, hand motion and eye motion.

Priming one’s outlook is essential to be actually able to discuss with operators what their real concerns are, and take them seriously. For instance, I recently heard operators complain about the fact they had to badge out at pauses for whatever internal HR control reason, and that walking to the badging point ate several minutes out of a twenty minutes work break. The manager nodded but didn’t pick it up (it’s always been like this), but clearly missed an opportunity to demonstrate respect by taking responsibility for this issue and working with the team members on how to fix it.

Yeah, Right

The second aspect of “respect” in lean is the respect for the development of the person’s autonomy to solve their own problems, which is essentially teaching problem solving. This, again, is tricky. Many people simply don’t want to solve their problems, they want their problems solved by management – period. The lady complaining of the noise doesn’t want to seek the root cause, she just wants someone to fix it. This second element of aspect involves management starting a dialogue with the employee about what the problem is, what the real root causes are and how to evaluate what could be an acceptable solution. Here again, we can see Dilbert look blankly as the pointy haired boss turn this conversation in an exercise of absurdity and disparagement (“Who’s your leader? Go on, say it!”).

The problem solving dialogue can be difficult and perceived very differently according to where one stands. The manager is supposed to challenge the employee:

  • What is the real problem?
  • What are the causes? Why? Why?
  • How would we measure a successful countermeasure?
  • What alternatives are you suggesting?
  • Have you confirmed results?

Without common trust between the manager and employee, this could very well be interpreted (and not necessarily wrongly) completely the other way:

  • What is the real problem? Yeah, I know, you don’t think it’s a problem and the real problem is I’m a slacker making a fuss.
  • What are the causes? Why? Why? What do you mean the root causes? Can’t you see the root cause is you haven’t invested in making this work station safe?
  • How would we measure a successful countermeasure? How should I know? I just work here, and you’re the ones putting everything in numbers – managers, ha!
  • What alternatives are you suggesting? Why do you want to hear that for? Whatever I say has been dismissed for years – you’re not getting me to volunteer for anything that will fall back on me.
  • Have you confirmed results? Yeah, sure, sure.

Drifting Toward Dilbertland

The third aspect of “respect” in lean is that employees genuinely feel they’ve contributed to the greater enterprise of “monozukuri”, making products together. This is why lean programs highlights “suggestion of the month”, and not “employee of the month.” The genuine lean vision is that every person should contribute their ideas to their job, and do so hands on, by visualizing a problem, analyzing the causes, picking a smart solution and being part of the implementation. The intent is that every employee experience the joy of creation and the pride of contribution: see, I made this, and they were happy with it and we’re still using it.

Here again this is complex because many employees simply might not want to be part of any such effort. The lady in the parts store shows no interest in looking at the different solutions for lowering the noise – she’s just not interested. So what do we do? Well, this is a test of our managerial ability to show respect and to take it easy, and try to improve the situation slowly on small specifics knowing we’ll never completely solve the issue, or engage the person.

Ultimately, the test of the practice of respect is whether it develops common trust. Not all situations can be sorted it out to every one’s satisfaction, but in some gembas, conversations are easy and the general feeling is that win some lose some, but every one involved was being forthright and straightforward and trying their best. Certainly, with a cynical bend of mind, mutual trust is one more item on the management speak list and I don’t doubt that in some companies “mutual trust” can hide an ugly “align yourself or else,” but that’s my point – it’s all about intent. Every person is different, every person has their own values and is free to act in any way they feel like it.

In any case, the lean ideal for respect is pretty clear: make every effort to understand each other and take responsibility for others’ problems, develop every person’s problem solving autonomy, involve every person in designing their own jobs and managing their own work and partake to the joy of creation when ideas become a reality.

Like any ideal, the bar is high, and the reality of the gemba is often different, and it’s tempting to cut corners and let the pretense replace reality. There are no safeguards against this, and, as always with lean thinking, it comes down to the people who “get it” as opposed to those who “don’t”. Looking back, one thing is very clear: kaizen and respect can’t work without another. Kaizen without respect simply becomes yet another corporate rain dance.

But, oddly, “respect” without kaizen is probably worse. Without a common sense of the problems we all need to solve for the success of the company, managers and employeed are engaged in a context-free dance about well-being at work, which can’t ever be resolved and easily drifts into Dilbertland. The intent is to align individual success with value for customers (and in doing so, company success), but that intention also hits the rigor of the gemba, and thus the discipline of learning: practice respect a bit every day, all people all the time, and watch trust grow carefully and patiently.

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