Continuous Improvement -- What Ever Happened to Respect for People?

A successful lean transformation requires a commitment to the people who make it possible.

How many companies can you think of who publicly profess that people are their most valuable resource, but then treat them like a consumable commodity? Few would argue that Toyota is the most successful automotive company in the world today, a company whose chairman, Fujio Cho, has said, "First we build people, then we build cars." Toyota's management system is set up to run the company based on that philosophy. One would think that other organizations would learn from Toyota's success and emulate their attitude toward people, but my hypothesis is that few do.

In this age of Gen Y'ers, when attracting skilled manufacturing people is increasingly difficult, respecting people and treating them as your most valuable resource is becoming vital to both attracting and retaining them. Just attracting reliable, trainable people coming out of high schools, community colleges and bachelor's-degreed individuals is hard enough, but having a reputation as a company that doesn't value and respect its people makes the task much more difficult. In today's labor market, you have to be an employer of choice to attract the high caliber of people who are necessary for your business to grow and be successful.

The people who have been doing continuous improvement successfully for some time are the first to acknowledge the management team of a company is not where the improvement ideas come from; it's from the operations side, where the customer value is being added, that the most effective ideas originate. These companies turn the organization pyramid upside down and realize that it's management's job to support all those value-adding people at the "top." Managers and supervisors are taught that their role is to make sure that their people have the training, tools and materials they need to be able to do their jobs for customers -- not to tell them what to do.

How many of your "new hire" training programs teach people why in addition to how as part of their integration into your operations? If you teach them why, they can understand the mission and can help in finding better ways to accomplish it. If they only know how, they can't contribute very well to the continuous improvement efforts. Including them as active members of your continuous improvement teams, and seriously listening to their inputs and shows your people the organization respects them and values them as part of the solution rather than looking at them as commodities to be consumed and discarded.

In recent months, I have heard from a number of friends and acquaintances about people who were hired by troubled companies to lead lean transformations to help restore the financial health of these businesses. After three to five years of leading successful turnaround efforts, they were released because the job was "done." As people involved in lean know, the job is never "done" in continuous improvement because it's a journey rather than a destination -- improvement is always possible but it's never "done."

What these cases tell the world is that these organizations' senior management don't understand what continuous improvement is all about, and they also don't have much respect for the people who helped them restore their businesses or the necessity of having them continue with their improvement efforts. Their competitors are not sitting back thinking the job is "done," and they are continuing with their improvement efforts, so companies that stop in midstream are really starting to fall behind. Continuous improvement is a never-ending journey that can't be put on hold without having negative effects on an organization's customers and financial success.

If you are part of your company's management team, look at how your organization treats its people and do what you can to ensure that "respect for people" is more than just words and is part of your company's culture. People are your most important resource and they can help your organization achieve incredible things if you include them in your continuous improvement efforts and shown them the proper respect.

Ralph Keller is president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization dedicated to cultivating understanding, analysis and exchange of productivity methods and their successful application in the pursuit of excellence. He has been an operations practitioner for the past 35 years.

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