“Respect for people” is one of the most critical lean principles, and also one of the most misunderstood. If not practiced, developing a lean culture of continuous improvement is impossible.
Most everyone will nod in agreement and swear alignment with this principle. Few are going to argue against respecting each other. But our understanding is typically superficial and likely doesn’t change current behaviors. A deeper understanding is required.
One reason for our sketchy understanding of “respect for people” is its soft-skills connotation (even though it is essential for hard bottom-line results). Also, common definitions of respect don’t provide a direct connection to lean practices. For example, the definition “high admiration for someone” could apply to work, but how would it warrant a place in lean principles? Another use of respect, meaning “to avoid interfering”—such as respecting a person’s space—makes even less of a case. Neither of these everyday uses gets us close to the core of “respect for people.”
“Challenge” is often used to clarify the meaning of “respect for people.” We respect an employee’s innate value by challenging them to improve themselves and company processes. This provides more insight into the type of respect required to build a continuous improvement culture; however, what are the specific behaviors that enable this type of challenging environment?
I believe that the heart of “respect for people” lies within five employee rights. These are not concepts that are in the nice-to-do category, or things that are appreciated if instituted, but the fundamental rights of every single person in the organization, regardless of role, function, educational level, background, or years of experience. If there is a violation of even one of the five employee rights, development of a lean culture is stifled.
Following is a brief overview of the five interrelated employee rights that will help us define “respect for people.”
1. Right of understanding: “I have a right to explanation to understand why.” What can be more disrespectful to me as a human being than to be told do something, or to make a change, or be part of something, without being provided the basic justification, the purpose, the why? This does not imply agreement. We may certainly disagree with issues that we clearly understand, but how can a person be enthusiastically engaged in any effort without understanding the why? Whether it’s the “why” of a proposed change, or of their job and team and how they fit within the “why” of the organization, this basic understanding of purpose is the baseline respect needed to develop an engaged workforce. Explain the why!
2. Right of involvement: “I have a right to be involved in solving problems and making changes directly affecting me.” A message of “just do what you are told” will obviously not engender the employee passion and engagement that we are striving for. Everyone needs to be involved, not just a few lean zealots. Involvement leads to commitment and ownership. Some resistance to change is to be expected in any improvement effort, but most people will not resist change in which they have an ownership stake. And the ownership emotion is strongest when involvement occurs in the early stages of a change, ideally at the idea-generation or development stage. Involve stakeholders and involve as early as possible.
3. Right of input:“I have a right to be listened to. My opinions matter.” Passive involvement is not the point of right #2. A lean culture requires engaging the hearts and minds of the workforce, not just their arms, hands and legs. When our intelligence is insulted by not being listened to, many of us will reciprocate and shut down and quit listening or hear enough just to keep our jobs. Any pleas for participation in the continuous improvement process fall on deaf ears. The disengaged mindset of “Just tell me what to do, boss” may be formed. This reluctance to engage, or maybe stronger feelings and actions of resistance, are the result, obviously not the mindset which we desire. Listen, then listen some more.
4. Right of success: “I have a right to have the materials, tools, information, training, coaching and support that are necessary to be successful in both the short and long term.” Being set up for failure can only be described as demotivating and demoralizing. This can occur at any level of the organization. One example—consider the role of the front-line leader. This is arguably the most critical leader level in any lean transformation. Most of the workforce typically reports to this leader level. Lean principles redefine the roles and responsibilities of all leaders, but we often fail to provide the training, guidance, and ongoing coaching required to help the leader, especially at the front line, transition and develop into their new roles. It’s not their fault. We failed in supporting their “right of success.” Set people up for success, not failure.
5. Right of Humanity:“I have a right to be treated as the intelligent human being that I am who can contribute, learn, and grow.” This could be considered a summary, or overarching right of the previous employee rights, but is added to emphasize the inherent respect which every single human being deserves. We all have different roles within the organization, and our backgrounds and experience may vary greatly; however, we must create an environment of fairness and mutual trust and respect where we see each other as equals in our quest to work together to continuously improve. Recognize the inherent value in everyone!
If you doubt any of the above, or you question my belief that a lean culture is impossible without alignment with the five employee rights, all I ask is that you make it personal. Think about your own motivations. Could you possibly be engaged and motivated if you do not understand the why, where the purpose is on a need-to-know basis, and you’re never given the respect of being granted the need to know? Or if you’re never invited to be involved in making changes—even those directly affecting you—and when you do feel that you have something to contribute, you are ignored and not listened to? Or if you always seem to be set up for failure rather than success (whether intentionally or not), and the workplace lacks a sense of equality and mutual trust and respect?
Can anyone become an engaged employee within a disrespectful environment like this? I seriously doubt it.
Dave Rizzardo is the associate director of the Maryland World Class Consortia. His lean experience predates the time when lean became synonymous with business excellence. Dave co-developed the Lean Peer Group service, which helps organizations develop a lean culture. He currently facilitates multiple groups and works directly with organizations in helping them on their lean journeys. His book, Lean - Let's Get It Right! How to Build a Culture of Continuous Improvement, addresses the root causes of why many lean transformations fail to meet expectations, and he provides the information needed to turn things around.