“Respect for People” and “The Design of the System”

Michel Baudin, a fellow blogger and author, posted a video link of a panel discussion that included Jeffrey Liker (The Toyota Way, Toyota Leadership) in which British consultant John Seddon makes the comment that “This respect for people stuff is horse shit.” Seddon argues that what leads to improvement is the system and not an intervention to respect or deal better with the people. On Michel’s blog, there followed what I think was an interesting exchange on the subject between Michel, Mark Graban and myself.

You can find the entire 45 minute panel discussion here: http://vimeo.com/42297077. It is a worthwhile discussion about lean, standard work and the nature of the system. You could easily use this video as a basis for a training session to discuss how these concepts apply to your organization.

Beware False Dichotomies

But, I want to discuss in a bit more depth this idea of “respect for people” and the nature of the system. To argue that respect for people is horse shit and the right answer is in the system is a false dichotomy. False dichotomies are popular in our culture because they have become the basis for political discussion and an intellectually lazy way of arguing a point. For example – socialized medicine is bad, free markets are the solution. Or, we have Second Amendment rights, therefore any restrictions on guns is unconstitutional. These are false dichotomies. The government has a role in healthcare and so do free markets. You can have a right to a gun and have background checks or registration. You have a right to free speech, but yelling fire in a crowded movie theater is out of bounds. There is freedom of religion, but if you claim that your religion is cannibalism…. well, there is a limit!

Taiichi Ohno, Father of Toyota Production System

Respect for people is the result, not only of personal patterns of communication, but also the result of the nature of the system. In democratic societies, in which you elect the government and there is freedom of speech, religion and press, that system is inherently more respectful of people than a system that is autocratic and guarantees no freedoms. The problem with autocracy is not simply the personal behavior of leaders, but the system that produces disrespectful behavior on the part of leaders. Taiichi Ohno, considered the father of the Toyota Production System was a genius for his development of that system, but his personal behavior toward others was often demeaning and disrespectful. Of course, he was the product of a post WWII world in which a leader could berate an employee in ways that would now get you fired today… rightly, in my view. There are many examples of leaders doing great things, yet demonstrating behavior we would not want to imitate.

How Do You Design In Respect for People?

As a manager or leader you are a “systems engineer.” You are responsible for the design of the technical and social systems of your organization. Here are just a few ways you can design respect for people into your organization’s system.

  • On-Boarding Respect: How you bring people into your organization, particularly managers, can set the pattern for the rest of their career with your company. Is a new manager brought into the company, given a corner office, a conference room in which to hold meetings, and provided an organization chart that defines his role in the world? I hope not. At Honda a new manager or professional, on their first day at work is handed their uniform, the Honda baseball cap, and assigned to work on the line for six weeks. Why? To learn “respect” for the “world’s greatest experts who are on-the-spot.” This practice is designed into the system and it does a great deal to instill an attitude of respect for those who do the value adding work.
  • Leader Standard Work at the Gemba: Leaders at every level should spend some time at the front-line, where the work is done. Why? Not to “oversee” or to “supervise” but to learn, to help the front-line employees to solve problems. If the leader’s walks around the floor is scanning the environment for something to correct, to “catch someone doing something wrong”, he is demonstrating disrespect. If, on the other hand, he is scanning the environment for “how can I help them and what can I learn from them?” he is demonstrating respect. Leader standard work should be reviewed at the next level, and the next. At each review the question should be “How did you help them?” Or, “What did you learn from them?”
  • Design Decision Making for Respect: An important part of the design of your system is the design of the decision making process. If you have not designed the decision process than your design is incomplete. What decisions are made by the individual front-line employee? What decisions are made by the work team? These are important questions because they will determine how much “stuff” floats up the organization, how much time managers spend “tampering” with work that is not theirs, and how engaged the work force will be.
  • Encourage Experimentation and Improvement: As you are doing your gemba walk it is a good idea to discuss problems and then ask the employees or teams what experiments they have conducted. We learn through experimentation. Toddlers learn by touching everything in sight and putting most things in their mouth. We learn by exploring and experimenting. Most continuous improvement, and it is the intention of the PDCA cycle, is simply to cause people to think and to try some possible improvement. There should be no fear in experimenting and failing. That is inherent in the learning process. If you encourage and reward experimentation, you are demonstrating respect for people.

All of these practices should not be the result simply of individual leader’s behavior. Rather, they should be designed into the system. As the system engineer, the manager of the system, it is your responsibility to design respect for people into that system. This is essential to the improvement process.

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“Respect for People” and “The Design of the System” — 14 Comments

  1. Great points on how to design a socio-technical system (engaging, teaching, mentoring, and coaching others) that helps create respect for people.

    I also believe that individuals can choose their reactions and behaviors and that we’re not all just responding to external stimuli, such as “the system” in which we work.

    There’s a balance… for example, a surgeon gets frustrating and hopping mad and starts throwing stuff at people. On the one hand, I understand that it’s frustrating when cases never start on time because of silly process problems. But, on the other hand, the surgeon is CHOOSING to act incredibly disrespectfully.

    But, we can avoid the false choice dilemma, as you stated so well. We can fix the system (reducing the occurrence of problems that cause accumulated frustration and anger) AND we can insist that people behave respectfully and make good choices about our behavior.

  2. Justin Noll at Merck had trouble entering the following comment. Some software problem.

    Larry – Great post with a lot of excellent points! I agree completely with the concept that respect for people needs to be built into the way you do business, and not taught as a stand-alone solution to a company’s problems. Toyota Kata is a great example of how to improve employee interactions while also working on continuous improvement. When done correctly, the daily coaching gives the learner an opportunity to develop skills, learn the business, expand his threshold of knowledge, and experiment on improvement while interacting regularly with his manager (coach). The coach can gain insights into the learner’s skills and abilities and steer them toward situations which will help them develop as they also continuously improve the business. And it requires everyone to ‘go and see’, driving more interaction with the shop floor. So when consultant John Seddon says that ‘this respect for people stuff is horseshit’ I think what he is saying that you can’t just teach respect in a vacuum – you’ve got to change the way you run the business and the way you grow and develop people.

  3. The following was sent to my by James Harrington. If you don’t know him, Google him. He is one of the long time leaders of the quality field.

    Anyone that does not understand that respecting people is a primary requirement to successful management has no right giving advice to any organization as a he is leading them down a path of destruction. If you do not respect your employees they will not respect you. Respect is something you earn you cannot dictate. If your employees do not respect you they will not give you their very best efficiency or effectiveness. They do the very minimum they can to get by and often will sabotage the organization just because they really don’t care about the organization. Respect builds loyalty, loyalty builds ownership, ownership builds pride, pride builds commitment, commitment transforms the organization from a meets requirements to an outstanding organization. You can never have a great organization if it isn’t built on a foundation of honesty, openness, and respect.
    Very keep up the good work and design systems that are based on mutual respect of the management team and the employees.

    Very sincerely yours
    H James Harrington

  4. I enjoy reading every single word here and also agree with John Seddon’s points and other panel professions’ points. Many CXOs are untouchable giant in most organizations. We can only lead a horse to water, but can’t let the horse drink the water. Sometimes or most times, we just simply leave them alone and let them die.

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  6. Seddon’s work in services begins with going through what he calls ‘Check’, an essential series of steps which helps managers to understand the current performance of their organisation as a system. In taking the workers in the organisation through a normative learning loop, the dysfunctional behaviour of the system is exposed to workers, managers and leaders. At the same time, new measures are constructed around what really matters to the end user that show the way forward for any redesign of the system. In contrast, conventional lean (following Womack and Jones) and its advocated first step of standardisation misses the opportunity for learning by understanding the ‘what and why’ of current performance.

  7. Seddon’s work in services begins with going through what he calls ‘Check’, an essential series of steps which helps managers to understand the current performance of their organisation as a system. In taking the workers in the organisation through a normative learning loop, the dysfunctional behaviour of the system is exposed to workers, managers and leaders. At the same time, new measures are constructed around what really matters to the end user that show the way forward for any redesign of the system. In contrast, conventional lean (following Womack and Jones) and its advocated first step of standardisation misses the opportunity for learning by understanding the ‘what and why’ of current performance.

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  9. Thank you for an interesting post and interesting further material (I read Michel’s blog post and the discussion there as well as watched the panel video).

    I have a slightly different view on the relationship between respect for people and the system than you, which I think could be of interest.

    First, I suppose it should be clarified that I subscribe to the view that respect for people is not about behavior as such, but about involving people in the improvement efforts with the ultimate goal of enabling people to improve towards perfection. I think Michel argued exactly for this in his blog post and the discussion as well, so I do not claim for it to be anything new.

    However, when this view is combined with system design, I think the relationship is reversed from what you suggest: respect for people is not designed into the system, but the system is designed based on respect for people. Respect for people is a fundamental value, from which certain features of systems arise. I like to use this thought in the comparison between Lean and Taylorism (as generally understood): with respect for people as a fundamental value, it is impossible to design the Tayloristic system, because that system is, by its very essence, in conflict with this fundamental value. Furthermore, certain characteristics of Lean are direct consequences of adopting respect for people as a value: it is impossible to design a system where everyone does not participate in continuous improvement when starting from such a value.

    In the case of your analogy to modern democracy, I can assert with some certainty that this is exactly the case. Freedom of speech etc.do not cause respect for people – they are built into the system because of respect for people. The modern democratic system is largely built on the arguments first presented by John Stuart Mill, especially in his On Liberty, and Mill was a proponent of ever-improving mankind, and freedom of speech was one of the most important aspects of securing that improvement even in cases where the opinions stated were false, as even that dialogue served to reinforce the truths and (more commonly) find weaknesses in the prevailing opinions that enabled further improvement.

    I would further argue that this is behind the TPS as well, although from a different source, Confucianism. I do not claim that TPS was intentionally set up as a Confucian system, but merely that Confucianism had profound influence on the culture in the area where TPS was invented, and that it manifests in this way. Thus, there is no conflict between Taiichi Ohno’s demeaning behavior and respect for people. After all, the purpose of the infamous Ohno circle was to make the student see, to make him improve, and that goal of helping him improve towards perfection is what respect for people in Lean is all about.

    When respect for people is seen as a fundamental value, it is easy to see how saying that is should be designed into a system sounds somehow false. When it is a fundamental value, it is impossible to design a system that does not manifest it.

  10. Ville,

    Thank you for your comment. I think to say that “respect for people is not designed into the system, but the system is designed based on respect for people” is a distinction without a difference. It is a circular argument. If you have respect for people you design the systems so that people are engaged and treated with respect.

    I think respect for people is demonstrated both in personal behavior and in the design of the system. How you talk to people does matter. Speaking to people in a demeaning way to “make the student see” rather than to “help the student see” reflects a fundamental disrespect for the motives and nature of men and women. I think excusing that behavior is a serious mistake.

    But, I agree with everything else in your comment. Thanks.

  11. Larry,

    I think there is one important difference. If respect for people is a fundamental value held by the people designing the system, the system will inevitably manifest it. If it is just one guideline to be used when designing a system, that implies that there is a choice whether to include it or not.

    I would go as far as assert that unless respect for people is part of the value base, the system itself cannot be Lean, as values are prevalent throughout the system in ways that mere guidelines used during system design cannot be.

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