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.