How Lean Leaders Really Show Respect

Jan. 20, 2015
As leaders, when we challenge people to learn new ways of thinking and doing, we are showing them the greatest type of respect possible.

This is the third in a three-part series of reflections on “Go see. Ask why. Show respect.” Read part one here, and read part two here.

I’ve worked with a lot of organizations over the years, and I believe that every leader, in every organization that I’ve worked, with would state unequivocally that one of their strongest beliefs is that all people should be treated with respect. I’m sure you’ve found this in the organizations you’ve worked with too:

“Of course we treat people with respect here: We don’t shout at anyone, all of our managers have an ‘open-door’ policy, and we are an equal-opportunity employer. Treating people with respect is even part of our company’s mission statement!”

This is all well and good. I think we would all agree that in a work environment, treating people with respect certainly involves treating others as you would like to be treated yourself, listening openly to diverse opinions and appreciating the many differences that your team members have.

However, I believe that this definition only scratches the surface of what treating people with respect means in a lean environment. At Toyota, the model for lean, respect for people also means challenging everyone to think critically and improve something on a daily basis, so that each person can develop and contribute to their fullest potential, both as workers and as human beings. Respect for people is seen as thoroughly intertwined with continuous improvement.

There is a famous and often-told story about Taiichi Ohno visiting the factory of a supplier. As he walked the shop floor, Ohno noticed a worker who was standing in front of a machine. When Ohno asked the worker what he was doing, the reply was, “I am watching the machine in case there is a problem.” “How often does a problem happen?” asked Ohno. “Never,” replied the worker. Taiichi Ohno thought to himself, “What a terrible waste of humanity.”

What Taiichi Ohno understood is that every team member comes to work with a desire to add value to the best of their ability, with a desire to do their job in a way that satisfies customers and contributes to the overall mission and success of the company. And in order to do that, team members must learn and grow and get better, each and every day. Lean leaders who respect their team members need to ensure that they are providing a work environment that enables people to learn and grow constantly so that they can make a greater contribution tomorrow than they did today. Developing people on a daily basis is what lean leaders do to “show respect.”

How do lean leaders develop their team members’ critical thinking and problem-solving abilities everyday? By actively teaching them how to identify and solve problems in their daily work so that they constantly improve their problem-solving and critical thinking skills through practice. This may even feel a little painful, as thinking is difficult, but over time each team member will grow in confidence and capability.

Think back to a time recently that a team member came to your desk with a question or a problem such as this:

“I’m not sure how to complete this transaction. The customer is asking us to add this service onto his account. It’s not something we normally do in this department, but I know that they can do it in the next department. Can you help me figure out what to do?”

What would your response be? In my experience, in most environments, the manager would listen to a short explanation of the situation and then tell the team member “what to do” to solve the problem. Most of the managers and leaders I’ve worked with would say that that was the “respectful” thing to do. After all, we don’t want people to be stressed, have unanswered questions, or have the discomfort of not knowing what to do in the situation. That would be “disrespectful.”

A lean leader’s response to the same situation would be very different, however. In order to develop their team member’s problem-solving and critical thinking skills, the lean leader might go to the team member’s workspace, look at the documents with the team member, and then help the team member figure out how to approach the situation and solve the problem by asking questions to challenge their current thinking. As the team member worked through solving the problem, the leader would be there to support the team member, as needed, but without solving the problem for them. The consistent, constant application and repetition of this approach helps team members to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

By coaching their team members to identify and solve problems, lean leaders challenge them to think and act differently when they encounter the problems that occur daily in their work. With constant, ongoing questioning to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, lean leaders support individual and team learning and growth. As leaders, when we challenge people to learn new ways of thinking and doing, we are showing them the greatest type of respect possible.

How can you challenge and nurture your team members so that they develop their problem-solving and critical thinking skills? The answer, I believe, brings us right back to the beginning of this series… by “going to see and asking why.” That is what respect is really all about.

Image by Mihai Maxim / iStock.

About the Author

Karyn Ross | Coach for Lean Leadership

Karyn Ross is an experienced Lean practitioner and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt focused on driving sustainable business culture change in service organizations so that “Lean becomes the way we do our work, not just something extra to do.” Her areas of expertise include teaching PDCA and daily kaizen to develop and foster a culture of creative problem-solving ability at all organizational levels, facilitating kaizen and other cross-functional improvement activities to build and drive customer-centricity and alignment across the organization, and designing integrated coaching and mentoring programs and materials.

With experience in a wide variety of financial services organizations, Ross’s areas of expertise include: coaching and mentoring for leadership and team member development, visual management for services and transaction processes, and creative problem-solving through PDCA.

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