Reclaiming the People Side of Lean (Or How We Lost Respect)

Lisa Keosababian on May 12, 2015

By Larisa Benson, Principal, The Athena Group

When lean process improvement is initiated in the workplace, the message that often comes across is “Hey, we think we have a lot of waste here.” That sends alarm bells ringing so loudly, people can barely hear the next words. Then come consultants wielding spreadsheets, reams of Post-its, and a bunch of complicated new words. Somewhere along the line, management admits that, by the way, we’re not going to deprioritize anyone’s other assignments, just add more very long meetings and difficult analytic work. In response, employees often feel discouraged or distrustful; many may not be invested in the success of the lean initiative. Before it’s even gotten off the ground, the initiative is steeped in failure.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When people truly understand waste—tiresome meetings, botched communications, lack of trust, confusion over competing priorities, the absence of meaningful (or any) feedback, redundant or conflicting processes, lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities, doing things over and over that don’t make any sense—they want to let go of it. Yet organizations often don’t invest the time to explain these effects in personal terms and, as a result, their lopsided lean efforts underutilize the essential human ingenuity that exists within each of us.

When did we lose respect for people? And how can we reclaim the people side of lean?

Respect for People

This fundamental principle of lean thinking has been lost in translation. At Toyota, the pioneering source of lean thinking, two pillars support the house of lean: 1) continuous process improvement and 2) respect for people. I notice a lot of organizations investing in the tools of continuous process improvement but only a very few attending to the pillar of respect for people. Both pillars are foundational and necessary for lean transformation. What would happen if you built a nice new front porch for your house but awoke one day to find one of the two pillars missing? It would fall down!

And so it is with lean implementations that fail to give sufficient attention to the soft side of lean. (This is also true of the majority of change initiatives, not only lean.) Lean doesn’t fail because an organization didn’t do 5S first or didn’t certify enough Six Sigma Green Belts. Lean transformation efforts fail primarily due to neglect of the cultural conditions necessary to sustain continuous process improvement. It’s not the technical side of change that trips us up. When we don’t recognize or respond well to the adaptive changes, we eventually find ourselves right back where we started—perhaps a little disillusioned.

Strategy is critical to create change—and a good strategy often involves technical innovations—but if we don’t attend to the cultural dimensions of change, we’ll never reap the benefits promised by those great new ideas. By cultural dimensions, I mean the shared norms, values, and assumptions your employees live and breathe like air. As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Leaders ignore culture at their peril.

With lean, everyone has an essential role, and we all need each other to succeed. Establishing a clear mutual purpose is the first step to creating mutual respect. Managers must respect the knowledge of the people doing the front-line work, because managers are simply too far removed from the daily work to really understand what is causing problems. Meanwhile, front-line workers are often too close to the problem to see the big picture and may not remember to ask themselves and each other the bigger or tougher questions. They must respect the strategic context and collective responsibility for long-term success that is the responsibility of management.

At Toyota, it’s considered disrespectful to underutilize each person’s capability to learn and to grow. Underutilized talent is sometimes called the eighth waste in lean, after the more traditional seven wastes (waiting, defects, overproduction, over-processing, transportation, motion, and inventory).

But it’s not enough to simply give people a chance to develop new skills once a year during their annual performance review. People need continuous feedback, clear standards, and something worth striving for. They need to be able to break down their problems into manageable chunks, and they need many chances to explore, learn, try, fail, and try again. This is why coaching people through disciplined problem-solving is at the heart of the Toyota culture. It is a daily habit, and it is how employees at all levels continuously show each other the highest form of respect.

Pitfalls of Performance Measurement

In my work with teams and organizations, it pains me to witness people being bullied with performance measures, well-intentioned as these efforts may be. Lean is one of many management approaches to advocate the consistent use of metrics, and in the public sector, make no mistake, we tend to be woefully weak on meaningful measures of performance. But when starting or ramping-up performance measurement efforts, leaders should be mindful of the messages they are sending. A wise leader can express aspirational goals with numerical targets and raise expectations for measurable results if those messages are accompanied by sincere and visible sponsorship support to achieve those results. In other words, you must be prepared to back your people up when the going gets rough.

However, some managers mistakenly believe they can command and control the workforce by imposing performance metrics that cascade down from a strategic plan and are embedded into individual performance evaluations. Employees are forced to “feed the beast that bites them,” laboring to submit data into a computerized tracking system, only to feel unfairly judged and stressed out by the ritualistic posting of quarterly statistics reports. Managers frantically work extra hours to complete work at night after fighting brush fires all day, while employees struggle to keep up with punishing workloads under exhortations to “take initiative!” and “do more with less.”

Sometimes we overdo it in an effort to correct the imbalance. We overpromise, knowing that we very well may end up under-delivering. Nevertheless we hope, we wish, and we pray the numbers will come out better in the next report. Or worse—we game the numbers, trying to give upper-level leaders the results they crave. We celebrate successes that are really the result of happy accidents, and we scurry for cover when it looks like the numbers aren’t going to fall our way.

I call this the mania of performance perversions. Author Ken Miller calls it the crazy cycle.

We sometimes get stuck in this vicious cycle, devolving into the blame game, where every person is out for themselves, sucking up whatever they can get from the value stream instead of giving more and more of themselves to the team’s shared purpose.

None of us is as smart as all of us

If you can relate to the pitfalls of performance measurement, your team may be suffering in silence, allowing the situation to continue or worsen. Pent-up resentment is a common cause of disrespect in the workplace. It takes skill to navigate those uncomfortable conversations necessary to confront our truth and break through to clarity and mutual purpose. (Please see Ujima Donalson’s article on accountability in the fall issue of The Leading Edge if you want to know how to get out of the silence-or-violence trap.)

Even if your organization has avoided the pitfalls or isn’t invested in “lean,” you can still strengthen the pillar of respect for people. Become a leader who is courageous enough to set high standards, and sensitive enough to remove fear and confusion. We delude ourselves when we think we have to choose between speaking our truth and showing respect, between having high standards and having compassion. Remember that clarity is your best weapon for cutting through confusion and resistance, and compassion is your best practice for driving fear out of the workplace.

The Japanese proverb “none of us is as smart as all of us” captures the essence of why respect for people is such a fundamental principle for any group endeavor. Think of your team as the crew on a boat. Certainly it is easy to spot the captain’s role in setting the course and making decisions when the weather changes. But without the cook, the crew would starve. Without the navigator, the boat would get lost. Without the sailors, there would be no wind in the sails. When the seas get stormy, some leaders feel great pressure to have all the answers, when in reality a truly high functioning team shares the responsibility to bring the ship safely to port.

Great team experiences often include the story of people banding together to overcome a meaningful challenge; a sense of everyone moving together so that the work flows effortlessly; a strong feeling of camaraderie; confidence that you have each other’s back and that each person is contributing their own unique talent to create a valuable and meaningful result. If you’ve experienced this once in your life, here’s the good news: You can create that again. More good news: Most people have a memory like this that you can tap into. If you and your team can develop good habits, you can achieve that vision of a high-functioning team that plays well together, and plays to win.

Culture of Respect in the Workplace

Workplace culture is about shared values. It shows up in what people do and how they treat one another, and in the ways that decisions are made and communicated. Organizational theorist Edgar Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions” that can be recognized by the visual artifacts in the workplace along with verbally espoused beliefs, values, and basic underlying assumptions.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, gives us a three-part recipe for changing habits: cue, routine, and reward. Let’s imagine how this looks in a lean workplace—that is, a workplace committed to both continuous process improvement and respect for people:

  • Management and employees have collaborated to define quality standards and routines so that everyone knows what “good work” means for every task. They have a shared understanding of how those tasks link together into efficient processes that contribute to the flow of valuable, meaningful results.
  • Visual boards with current data depicting this flow of value are posted everywhere, not buried in some report just for executives, so everyone can instantly see how the organization is progressing toward goals every day. Team members can easily spot the cues, and they help each other when problems emerge, before those problems spiral into disasters.
  • Wasteful conflicts are minimized, so managers can devote their energy to coaching and providing feedback in real time (rather than once a year), and engaging each other in solving problems that cut across organizational silos.
  • Leaders show their respect by the way they pay attention to the real work, eliminating confusion and giving everyone a clear sense of purpose.

Look around your workplace, and listen to what people are saying. Can they clearly express what’s most important? Do they fundamentally trust their leaders and each other? Do they believe they are empowered and capable of solving problems? Do they find meaning and satisfaction in their work every day?

If not, why not take a step toward creating a stronger, healthier, more vibrant workplace culture?

Even if you are in a fairly healthy team but feel you could be even better, check out local author
Bob Brown’s book The People Side of Lean for a simple formula with four components:

  • A compelling – not trivial – task.
  • A sense of belonging that comes from membership in a team.
  • Intrinsic motivation. You can lay out the benefits, but people must come to their own sense of “what’s in it for me?”
  • A genuine opportunity to exercise and influence decision making.

Building confidence in problem solving and trust among co-workers takes time and effort, but the payoffs are significant. As teams and organizations move toward creating more cohesion and improved performance, the individuals on those teams also become healthier, happier and more productive. And that means that when they leave the workplace, they bring that happiness and confidence into their homes, families and communities.

Remember that building just one pillar is never enough. Leaders who believe in and practice continuous process improvement must also actively believe in and practice respect for people. When people have a say, when they believe their ideas matter, when they can see the value of their contributions—then they feel respected. Respect is a fundamental human need. Where human beings are united by a common purpose and mutual respect, a team can achieve truly great results. Lean calls upon all of us—and our leaders most of all—to practice humility, perseverance, and compassion.

Larisa Benson is a teacher of management disciplines, a seeker of new ideas and a fan of people who choose to give their energy and talent in service to community. 

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