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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: LEAN = KAIZEN + RESPECT

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Monday, November 8, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Respect-for-people has been there all along in TPS thinking and is clearly mentioned in the early 1977 paper on the Toyota Production System and kanban, yet this aspect of the lean system has never received as much interest as, say, kanban cards. One common explanation is that, outside of Toyota, any company’s culture will “fight” more strongly people-related ideas than technical tools, but maybe it’s the other way around; Maybe tools make it easy to experiment with and deploy whereas general “fuzzy” concepts are hard to operationalize in practice.

The question, I believe, is what does “respect” mean in operational terms – what do we need to do tomorrow? – and how does it differ from common use notions of respect. If I look back to how experienced lean practitioners tackle the “respect” element, it’s possible to find both concrete skills and more general attitudes about respect.

The first basic skill is taking into account operators’ opinions – This is not even saying agreeing with them, but making a point of showing that their opinion has been heard and will be considered earnestly in ensuing discussions. This is one of the basic functions of the Production Analysis Parts Board. Every hour, the operators’ opinion of why the target number of parts was not achieved is written down on the board and –hopefully – taken into account by local management. This is not such an easy skill to master, and hour after hour on the shop floor, management has an impressive array of ways of dismissing what his written by the team leader: from simply ignoring it (and comments soon stop), to dismissing it (operators don’t know what is really going on), to arguing against it (they say this for their own reasons, but we know what the real truth is)

In this respect, the fist skill of “respect” is not about being nice or even being polite, but about actually taking into account what people have to say. This means shutting up the noise in one’s own head long enough to actually listen and hear what they have to say, and not dismiss it right away as naïve or irrelevant. One key thought to hang on to here is that understanding doesn’t mean agreeing, and it’s okay to hear and then not to agree. The promise here is very limited: what you say will be taken into account. It doesn’t involve signing a blank check.

On that tack, the next level up is to take into account unfavorable information. If there is one clear finding out of thousands of social psychology studies is that we have an inbred resistance to the hearing of bad news. “Cognitive dissonance,” as it’s called, is a bias towards disbelieving any information that goes against our professed opinions and beliefs. This hard-wired mechanism is at the root of many “shoot the messenger” or “ignore bad news” bizarre behaviors.

On the other hand, the spirit of scientific discovery is all about precisely looking for disconfirming evidence, looking for information that does not fit with what we already know, because this is where discoveries are made. If the first dimension of respect is taking into account other people’s opinions, doing so when their opinion is contrary to ours is a real skill, and hard to learn. This is particularly hard in a managerial setting as any signed of having listened can be taken as a proof of approval to go ahead with whatever. The difficulty here is learning to take in bad news, and encourage people to come up with bad news, without stoking expectations that we’re going to do something about it right away. Part of what makes experienced lean guys come across as gruff is that they’ve found their own ways of listening to bad news without jumping the gun immediately, which is not always easy when the person bringing the bad news is standing there with a “what are you going to do about this?” look in their eye.

“Bad news first” highlights a further aspect of “respect.” In order to give bad news, people have to be able to distinguish bad news from good news. Is an increase of the number of andon pulls good news (people are pulling the andon more frequently) or bad news (number of problems are increasing). At the gemba level there are many ways to interpret what goes on, and the tendency from the floor is to formulate it in a way consistent with what they think management wants to hear. In this respect sharing clearly with the guys what we’re trying to do is essential. If they don’t understand 1) overall objectives and 2) how their personal goals fit within these overall objectives, they will find it difficult to make a meaningful contribution – and express their opinions in a useful way (increasing the chance of dismissal or rejection of their expressed opinions).

The second skill of “respect” is to be able to share clearly the overall objectives with every worker (the story of the stone mason: I’m cutting a stone, I’m building a wall, I’m building a cathedral) so that they see their part in it and are able to contribute to the fullest. As Tracey Richardson points out day-to-day responsibility links to job purpose, to goals that guide this purpose to company goals.

Anyone on the floor will tell you that collaborating with management is a dangerous game: you can’t trust what they’re going to do with what you’ve told them or suggested. Game theory has two basic modes of interaction: cooperation (you help me with my objectives, I’ll help you with yours) or defection (for me to win this hand, you’ve got to lose it). Long term collaboration is build on mutual trust – literally many repeated interactions where both parties have collaborated to mutual advantage. On the other hand the day one starts to defect, the other feels hurt and hates being taken for a sucker, so will feel justified in defecting as well, and win-win can easily turn into lose-lose.

The mutual trust dimension of respect is key to get employees to contribute, but requires a third skill: learning to help people reach their OWN objectives – which first means having a clear idea of what THEY’re really after. In many managers ‘ minds, operators are getting paid to contribute to the company and that’s that. They don’t see why they should make any effort to understand more that a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. That’s all very well in a taylorist environment, but if we aim to develop the kaizen spirit we’re going to understand further: 1) what individuals are after and how do they recognize it when they get it, 2) whether they think they can actually achieve it and 3) whether they feel it will satisfy them when they do.

Understanding other people’s motives is a key skill and an important dimension of respect, without which many attempts at building mutual trust by rewarding or returning favors may fall flat because workers don’t care that much about how management tries to recognize their efforts. Recognition is really a matter of different strokes for different folks, and getting to grips with that is an important aspect of respect: respecting that people are different.

I believe that “respect” starts with taking into account other people’s opinions and ends with a personal commitment to help others succeed both in their day at work and in their career. There are many aspects and many styles, but we need to work harder at defining the core skills under the “respect” umbrella to be able to better share this aspect of lean with companies already familiar with the kaizen tools.

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