Employee Motivation and Lean Implementation – Part 4: Respect for People

Motivating employees is not easy. In previous posts I described that the carrot and the stick approaches don’t work very well. What in my experience works best to improve the system is Respect for People!

This is actually a very important aspect of the Toyota Production System, and Toyota puts in lots of effort to show respect to all people. This includes not only employees (the focus of this post), but also customers, suppliers, neighbors, and pretty much everybody else it comes in contact with. At Toyota, it is actually called Respect for Humanity (人間性尊重, ningenseisoncho). Unfortunately, all too often I find this lacking in Western lean implementations.

Respect for Humanity

In my view, respecting your people is one of the key aspects of a successful lean implementation. In fact, respect is a large part of any successful leader or manager. Respect almost always works both ways. If the people you work with do not feel respected, they won’t respect you either. Respect is all about what you do, and not about what you say you do. Most people can tell whether they are truly respected or if the manager just says it only because he has to say it. Even when the manager believes that he respects the worker, the worker’s opinion may differ. And it is all about what the worker thinks.

How Do You Show Respect?

How NOT to Show Respect!

So, how do you show respect for others? First of all, let me get off my chest what respect is not. It is NOT always being nice to everybody. There is a fable of the miller, his son, and the donkey, where the miller tries to please everyone, eventually carries the donkey instead of riding it, and ends up pleasing no one while accidentally killing the donkey.

The moral is that you cannot please everyone. If you try to make everybody happy, then you will be the fool that is taken for a ride. As a leader you have to make decisions, which not everybody likes. But by making just and reasonable decisions, you can get the respect of (the majority of) your people, even if the decisions are sometimes (slightly) detrimental for the employee.

Respect the Opinions of Others

In my experience, a large part of respect is shown by respecting and valuing the opinions of others. Just because someone has a different opinion doesn’t automatically mean that he is wrong. Respecting that opinion is an important part of respecting the person.

On a side note, this would be good not only on the shop floor, but in general. We respect (rightfully so) different religions, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and so on. But it saddens me that as soon as it is about an opinion, all the respect and even tolerance goes out of the window. Republicans vs. Democrats, brexiteers vs. bremainers, military vs. peace movement, Anti-GMO vs. Biotech, and many more. It is not necessary to agree with others’ opinions; but having a differing opinion does not automatically make a person bad or wrong.

In any case, back to manufacturing.

Value the Knowledge of Others

Even more, respect is not only valuing the opinions of others, but also valuing their knowledge and experience. In fact, a lot of lean at Toyota is based on the experiences of the workers there. In many cases, the worker at the machine knows the machine better than anyone else. His knowledge can definitely contribute to a successful improvement. Of course, what the worker usually lacks is the view of the big picture. That’s where management comes in. The goal is to combine the detailed knowledge of the worker with the (presumed) knowledge of the manager to get an overall well-rounded improvement.

Yet, in (many) Western companies, the approach is that the manager determines what is to be done, and the worker has to do it. The worker is simply a machine made of flesh and bones. To give you two quotes from history:

  • The Author believes that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more efficient [worker] than any man can be. (Frederick Taylor, speaking about himself)
  • How come when I ask for a pair of hands, I get a human being as well? (Henry Ford)

Enable Workers to Influence Their Workplace

Factory WorkersValuing the opinions and knowledge of others results in people being able to influence their workplace. I had the best acceptance with projects when the people on the shop floor were part of the improvement team and were able to contribute to the decision making.

Being part of the decision making gives the participants much more knowledge about the path to the decisions, about the alternatives discussed and the trade-offs made. Rather than seeing all the things that are lacking, they understand that the result is often a compromise among different goals.

There are two ways to do this. First of all – and that is a no-brainer – the knowledge of the workers should go into the decision making. But there is a second way, which in my experience gives even better acceptance by the workers. The workers not only give information, but are also part of the decision-making process. Some managers have a problem with that since management is no longer the only voice in the room. Managers have to give up some of their power to let workers be part of the decision making. If there is an approach that management prefers but the workers dislike very much, then it may be better to actually follow the workers’ preference.

Businessman is pointing at himself
Me, me, me, … and me! Not good.

Of course, this can’t be generalized. Sometimes the management overrules the workers, and sometimes workers can put their views through. It is a give-and-take. If the manager is always right, then there is no respect and subsequently no buy-in by the workers!

The details depend very much on the situation at hand, and it is hard to generalize. But please respect your workers’ opinions and knowledge by sometimes accepting that they know more and by subsequently doing it their way. “Command and control” is not a respectful management style, and in lean manufacturing usually leads to inferior solutions.

Some Practical Tips

Here are some practical tips that help with the success of a lean project:

  • Involve the different stakeholders. Depending on the project have, e.g., a manager/supervisor, a worker, someone from logistics, and someone from maintenance on the team.
  • The team size should be 3 to 5 people. If it is larger, make subgroups.
  • Try to get the “alpha males” on the team. The word of an experienced and respected worker holds so much more weight with his colleagues than that of a newbie, even though it may be easier to convince the newbie.
  • It is unlikely that you will get everybody to agree. But try to have the majority of the people on board with your idea.
  • Talk to people, and – even more important – listen to people! Show respect!

Hopefully this will improve your chances of a successful lean project. Now, go out, respect your people, and organize your industry!

P.S.: This series of posts is based on a question by Curtis Rosché (name mentioned with permission).

2 thoughts on “Employee Motivation and Lean Implementation – Part 4: Respect for People

  1. Interesting posts. Your hypothesis seems based on the fact that the ‘worker’ is equally wanting to make change, and with mutual respect this can happen. In my experience the experienced workers are often those who are most resistant to change, partly because they’ve had change foisted upon them, but often because they have vested interests in not making changes. Do you have any advice about how to circumvent or at least get them onside? Or is that where the stick comes in? Thanks

  2. Hi CHristopher, good point. New young employees are often eager to improve their workplace, but over time management often teaches them (unintentionally) to fear change. If you have such a situation, DO NOT USE THE STICK! It won’t work anyway, as the ability of the workers to resist usually exceeds your ability to change. You have to “un-teach” previous management failures. Take a small project, involve the workers, and create small sucess stories so the workers trust you eventually with bigger ones.

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