What does ‘Respect for People’ actually mean?(Part 1 of 2)

John S. Hamalian
Posted: 06/01/2016


“Respect Your Elders!’ was a mantra drilled into our heads by many of our parents as early as we can remember.  But we may have not been told why to respect them, and may have been left with an impression that Respect merely means to be superficially polite to people.  While it is well established that one of the two key pillars of Toyota’s lean philosophy is ‘Respect for People’ (the other being Continuous Improvement) there has rather surprisingly been very little information provided to deeply explain what is meant by this critically important principle (with some notable exceptions such as various Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) publications and the book Lead With Respect).  

What exactly does ‘Respect for People’ mean?  And just who are we supposed to be respecting?  Common understanding of the principle is often that management should treat their employees nicely and with dignity, almost in a humanitarian context.  While this is surely an integral part of the philosophy, it actually goes much deeper than that.  Respect for People is not a soft, fuzzy notion of leadership fantasy, but a very specific approach to ensuring a sustainable organizational culture of people-driven change and improvement in order to increase overall performance.  

Let us explore what is meant by Respect for People, from the writer’s perspective, by breaking it down into smaller elements:

Respect for the Front Line

One of the most fundamental aspects of a society is an appreciation for work and for people performing work.  The more laborious, heroic and physically demanding tasks deserve even more respect.  Without such respect, some of the most basic building blocks of a civilization go unappreciated and neglected, and we will come to take work for granted in a manner more commensurate with detached elitism.  From a lean perspective, the people who are the most important are at the Gemba - the ‘point of impact’ or the ‘front line’ – physically touching the value-creating processes and often interacting directly with Customers.  These are the call center agents, the workers laying bricks, and the associates selling products.  The work they perform, and the manner by which they perform it, should be respected above all else.  

I have actually seen a boss literally cut right in front of a worker - while he was trying to perform his designated tasks – so he could show a ‘VIP’ something, almost treating the worker as if he did not even exist.  Not only was this disrespectful to the worker but by interrupting his standard work routine the boss could have very likely caused a quality issue, or even a safety problem!  On the streets I often see workers carrying heavy loads who have to stumble around apathetic pedestrians who have not learned to appreciate the simple respect for physical labor.  It is WE who should be getting out of THEIR way.   

Conversely, I once witnessed a leader who surprised everyone at a high-level performance improvement meeting by suddenly ushering in the local janitorial staff to commend them for keeping the bathrooms so clean. The employees were more shocked than anyone and, although clearly uncomfortable at their impromptu appearance, nonetheless very much appreciated the recognition and respect for their hard work.  This leader was trying to prove a point that we should respect people’s work - particularly labor-intensive work - and acknowledge a job well done.

Rakesh Sarna, CEO of Taj Hotels, has said: “who touches your toothbrush in the bathroom?  Not the GM and certainly not the CEO. Those are the people that we need to show respect to. Those are the people whose self-esteem we need to build. Those are the people that we need to inspire and this can be done only if they believe in what they are doing.”

The people at the front line are the ones directly adding value to the organization – why wouldn’t we respect that?

Respect for People’s Ability to Think

‘Just Do What You Are Told’ is a mantra still applied in many organizations, even if it may now be cloaked underneath a veneer of ‘casual workplace’ verbiage.  There remains a fundamental lack of trust in people’s capability to think for themselves.  Some leaders and organizations fear that people will take matters into their hands and bypass established ‘procedures’.  There is a well-documented case of a major electronics supplier where the workers were not even permitted to speak to each other on the job.  I personally know some extremely qualified professionals who quit their well-paying jobs at some very established financial services companies because their bosses insisted on controlling everything.  The Toyota way centers on a fundamental belief that humans have the capability to think, develop and improve. This is actually the basic enabler of Continuous Improvement, which is why the two pillars go hand in hand.  When there is no respect for thinking, no recognition of ideas, no expectation for improvement, people’s capability to develop new skills gets stifled, their desire to improve is muted and their performance will be stunted.

A lean organization does not only allow people to make improvements in their work, it EXPECTS them to do it (and the performance management process also incorporates this feature).  But it is important to note that change in a lean environment happens within a defined approach -- it not the ‘cowboy firing with both guns blazing’ type of uncontrolled change nor the ‘just do it your way’ method of perceived empowerment.  

In a lean environment, leaders do not instruct how to do things – but they do provide direction on what needs to be done, reinforce why it is important, and then ask questions at the Gemba, such as ‘how do you plan to accomplish this?’, ‘have you thought about x and y?’, and ‘what barriers are you facing?’.  At the essence of Respect for People’s Ability to Think is the notion of ‘challenge’ – challenging teams to improve and using the coaching process to lead them to solve problems.  Jim Womack, founder of LEI, writes: ‘over time I have come to realize that this problem solving process is actually the highest form of respect’, recognizing that not one person knows everything.  By showing mutual respect between managers and employees, problems can be mutually solved using mutually beneficial skillsets.

Womack once observed two organizations in the same business, located in the same city and paying the same wages.  Organization A used a traditional management system of metrics and accountability, with little people engagement on problem solving and continuous improvement, frequently spending time on work-arounds and blaming.  Organization B employed the concept of Respect for People, actively engaging the front line employees in challenging and coaching them on Problem Solving and Kaizen.  Jim studied their performance in front-line Employee Turnover, and the difference was extraordinary – Org A had an average annual turnover of 70%, while B was less than 5%!  A truly remarkable example that Respect for People directly leads to higher performance results.

When I was stationed in China for a new start-up, I had the privilege to work for an ex-Toyota manager.  One of the first things he asked us to do was not to design each employee’s work instructions to 100% complete, but to 70%.  We were astounded.  After all, we were the experienced professionals – how could we not ‘do our jobs’ and determine how to do everything for everyone?   He said, ‘let them figure out how to do it – they will not only complete the task, they will do it better than you’.   Indeed he was right, and the result was one of the most engaged, high-performing teams I have ever had the pleasure to work with.   And, by the way, we were freed up to address more complex and strategic work.

Lao Tzu said “A leader is best when people barely know he exists - when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘we did it ourselves’.”  It is only when employees’ ability to think is respected can they be empowered to learn, develop and improve, which will then in turn improve the organization’s performance.  

Respect for People’s Ability to Grow

We have a tendency to imagine people as they are now, instead of what they may be.  In my apartment complex there was a young man from India who was part of the housekeeping crew.  I always said hello to him and he always smiled back with a big grin.  I noticed he had good habits of hard work and diligence, always cleaning with a sense of purpose, seriousness and thoroughness.  One day I saw that his uniform had changed.  When I asked him about it, his face lit up with pride as he said, “Now I am Supervisor”.  Someone had the forethought to respect his ability to grow, instead of hiring a more ‘qualified’ person on paper.  I was so happy to see this good-natured and hardworking person be recognized for his efforts and be promoted from the ground-up.

We also have a tendency to pigeonhole people: ‘Ben’s a marketing guy’.  ‘Kuan Li is a numbers person’.  ‘Ahmed only has experience in the NGO sector’.  People can surprise us, if we would only respect their ability to grow, learn new things and branch out.  A few popular examples are out there - Walt Disney was a newspaper editor, Master Chef Julia Child was a CIA officer; and actor Sylvester Stallone worked at a zoo – but these examples are few and far between.  Mary Barra, General Motors CEO, has been a great role model for learning new things and growing along the way.  Not only was she awarded the top position at the relatively young age of 51, but she also had an uncommon degree of extensive multi-functional experience, working in Operations, Engineering, HR and Product Development.  

One of the 8 Types of Waste (Muda), is the Waste of Unutilized Human Potential.  It is only when we respect people’s potential to think, to learn and to grow will we eliminate this waste, which on a societal scale may be the worst waste of all.

Respect for People’s Limits

Even machines have a limit, and people certainly are not machines.  People have emotional, physical and time-based limits.  From a Lean context, this is known as Muri (Overburden), one of the ‘Three Enemies’ of an organization.   While we expect employees to work hard, be dedicated and deliver results, we also must recognize and respect their natural limits.  I have seen quite a few bosses who hand out assignments with absolutely no thought whatsoever to people’s capacity.  They expect things to happen almost by magic.   Do you think this will result in a high quality of work and high degree of employee morale?  Instead this is a sure-fire way to risk execution timelines, force short-cuts, lose key talent, cause inter-employee conflict and create customer dissatisfaction.

And all that extra work may not even be resulting in much, hence the reason that Muri is a kind of organizational waste.  Research by Stanford University shows that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and plummets after 55 hours – to the point where an individual who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours.  In addition, longer hours have been connected to absenteeism and employee turnover.

Respect for People’s Limits is not only the humane thing to do, it will likely lead to better overall performance.

Respect for Humanity

It is often said by employees that they feel like they are treated like ‘just a number’, meaning that they feel their employers see them as almost a mechanical device and not a human, mainly through the cold lens of an indifferent Balance Sheet.  While this is an extreme view and sometimes referred to jokingly by employees, there is a deep rooted truth to their perceived treatment.  While we expect workers to perform well and meet certain targets, we also must remember they are humans, with physical needs, self-development needs, personal financial needs, psychological well-being needs and family-dependency needs.  

To recognize this humanity in team members is not only the right thing to do, it will typically cultivate a more trusting, more balanced and more healthy employee, which often leads to lower attrition, increased productivity and higher quality.  Taken in a larger context, organizations should always strive to maximize the well-being of humanity in all the areas that they touch, for the betterment of their performance as well as for society overall.

Robert Bosch once famously said, “I have a lot of money because I make good wages”.  It is indeed true that people are a valuable resource and should be treated as an investment, not a cost.  There is a saying ‘Machines depreciate, People appreciate’.  Part of this is also respecting people’s lives, both from a safety and environmental standpoint as well as a work-life balance perspective.  Recognizing and respecting that people have a right to a safe working environment (physically and emotionally), a need for fair and dignified work, and actually possess lives outside the workplace will go a long way to build a culture of mutual trust, shared value and high performance.  

If you treat a person as a number, that is all they will ever be.


It is only when employees and other stakeholders are respected can they be enabled to think, learn and improve.  Respect for People is not just a fuzzy, soft-side concept but a practical, tangible and performance-enhancing management philosophy that also incorporates elements of social responsibility.  This is where ‘Do the Right Thing’ meets ‘Get the Right Results’.  Who wouldn’t want that?

[In Part 2 we will go beyond Respect for People and focus on the more fundamental premise of Respect, a notion that may be essential if we are to sustain our organizations, our society and our planet.]

John S. Hamalian
Posted: 06/01/2016


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