Lean Leadership – Respect for people. Why you don’t need to worry about the 8th waste

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When I train people in Value and the Seven Wastes I hammer home right at the beginning what I believe to be the two most important foundation principles of lean philosophy. I tell my trainees that if they only remember this one thing about lean from the training they will have everything they need to set off on their own personal lean journey.

Fundamentally lean is about continuous improvement and respect for people. Everything that comes after is rooted in these two principles. Every company that embarks on a lean journey understands the purpose of continuous improvement. It’s a fairly transparent principle. When you combine a commitment to continuous improvement with a relentless drive to find and eliminate waste, it’s all on right? You’ll be lean in no time!

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that straightforward. It’s the second principle, respect for people, one that is easily misinterpreted, that has given Toyota its unique place in manufacturing today. I feel that if more companies understood what respect for people meant they would be less likely to embark on lean transformations that are ultimately doomed to failure, leaving disappointed management and disillusioned team members in their wake. Inside the respect for people principle is everything that makes Toyota culture a powerhouse of ideas, commitment, drive and loyalty.

Respect for people is not about bottom up transformations, it’s not about consultation, quality circles or steering committees. It is simply about empowering and encouraging people to participate in the running and improvement of their own areas.

I don’t consider myself an expert in lean philosophy. I have never had the privilege to work at Toyota so my interpretation of their philosophy and culture is purely my own. As always, my approach to lean thinking comes from a minimalist perspective so here are my own tips for starting to build a culture that is fundamentally based in respect for people.

1. Empowerment should have as few limits as possible

While we don’t want to drive our business into the ground by overspending where there isn’t enough payback to justify the expense of an improvement, we need to make sure that the limitations we put on empowering our people are as few as possible.

This can be done by making sure that people understand the boundaries and reasonable spending limits around improvement so they can make decisions easily. Team members also need to understand when something is in their own control and when they need to consult with other team members to make a change.

Be cautious when setting limits. If too many limitations are put in place or team members have to jump through hoops to make a five second improvement, the flow of improvement activities gets bogged down in approvals and meetings. Improvement becomes ‘too hard’ and momentum will start to stagnate.

2. Unless you work in the area, you’re not the expert

This one is easy to mess up. You can have every industrial engineering or business qualification under the sun and a suitcase full of ideas but in reality, unless you have personal, hands on, within the last week experience of putting that widget in that gadget then you’re not the expert. The second you imply that you know more about the process that the guy or girl doing the work you have dis-empowered them and they are much less likely to change something just on their own opinion.

Respect for people encourages team members to improve their own work area and you are not exempt from that. If you have a burning desire to change someone’s work area set up then feel free to improve your own, which will set a great example anyway.

By all means, use your knowledge and experience to set the direction for the value stream or company. Be clear about performance expectations and make sure your vision is crystal clear to everyone and that you drive it forwards. Then back off from the detail.

When you are involved in cross functional improvement teams focused on improving areas it’s quite appropriate to get involved and put out ideas. This needs to be done in a way where it is clear that the final say on how something should go lies with what is best for the value stream and the people who work in the area.

3. This is not a spectator sport

This is pretty simple. If you want to show respect for your team members, show them that you are just as invested in improvement as they are. Improve your own area and processes and encourage others by example.

4. Your job is to remove the obstacles

As a lean leader, a big part of what you do will be removing the obstacles preventing the experts from improving their areas. This could be in terms of money, equipment or even through reviewing or removing non value adding policies and practices that hinder improvement. Spend time with your team members listening specifically for phrases like “We’d love to change that only…” and “If only we had..”. That’s your cue to step in and help remove an obstacle


The lean world is fairly divided on the legitimacy of 8th Waste – the waste of untapped human potential. To me it’s pretty clear that if you’re following the principles of respect for people, it’s very hard for this waste to exist and in fact, it’s not really waste, it’s just a sign that your fundamentals aren’t in place yet. When I train people on Value and Seven Wastes I mention this ‘waste’ in passing for those people who have heard of it before and immediately move on to how we as a company encourage and empower our team members to find and eliminate waste in their own work areas.

Respect for people takes a leap of faith and goes against many of tenets of traditional manufacturing. Hierarchy, approval systems and the perceived expertise of leaders are deeply embedded in many organisations and require time to change. In order to empower people in the workplace, leaders need to be able to let go and allow people to grow, make mistakes and learn in the process. Not every improvement is going to succeed but even a wrong step in the right direction is still a step towards a leaner organisation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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