♫ R-E-S-P-E-C-T – Find out what it means to me ♫ (well, actually, to you)

Ah – I can’t help but sing along to Aretha Franklin when the Respect for People pillar of Lean comes up! The thing is, that phrase has a whole new meaning to me now than it did before.

When I look back on the manager I was 15 years ago, I am both horrified and saddened. I was an all-business, all-results manager who saw the people on my team as pawns in a big chess game. I delivered results for the organization, but I didn’t do anything to better the lives of employees.

I have amends to make. And that is a big part of my why in coaching Lean leaders.

You see, I changed – not just as a leader, but as a person – when I discovered Lean and the ideas of Respect for People and Continuous Improvement.

But it didn’t just happen on its own because I was implementing Lean tools. I implemented kanbans and 5S and daily standup meetings, and the list goes on. Lean showed up on the outside – in the systems and the artifacts you could see in the plants (kind of, at least – let’s be real, nothing really stuck for long). But at the end of the day, I was that same, crappy manager.

The fact that I hadn’t changed internally – my mindset and my values – is what made the “kind of, but not really” Lean my reality.

I became obsessed with learning about Respect for People and experimenting with different leadership behaviors. And as I did that, I practiced behaving (and failed forward quite a lot) in a way aligned with my newfound Respect for People beliefs.

Lean implementation was no longer “another thing on my plate” that I had to muscle through to get to stick. It became a part of who I was – who the team was – how we thought and acted naturally.

To make Lean easier – to make it natural so we can create more value for customers – we have to move beyond the external systems and tools and processes and also do the internal work – who we are as leaders and how we show up for our teams.

Leading with Respect for People is one shift leaders need to make to transform from traditional management to effective Lean leadership. So let’s explore this idea further.

What Respect for People Is Not

Respect for People is not:

1. A simple definition that can be captured in a couple of sentences and universally applied

Bob Emiliani writes that “Respect for People defies simple definition,” saying that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to understand the concept. Trying to define the concept in a handful of words just doesn’t capture the breadth, depth, and extensiveness of how it materializes in our beliefs, behaviors, and systems.

2. A concept limited to casual ideas of basic courtesy

So often our first thoughts of Respect for People go to basic courtesy. That we speak to others with tact, that we don’t yell, that we aren’t mean. Basic courtesy, while certainly an expectation within a Lean culture, is not the limit.

3. A kumbayah organization filled with rainbows, butterflies, puppies, bean bags, and Foosball tables (and absent conflict)

Ahh that utopian idea of a conflict-free organization where everybody loves each other and gets along all the time. Yeah, that’s not it either. In fact, you will see that Respect for People will inherently include conflict, particularly when conflict is defined as disagreement, contradiction, or variance.

4. Secondary to the Continuous Improvement Pillar

While the Continuous Improvement Pillar often gets more love in the form of tools, systems, techniques, books, and training classes, it’s important to note that it is not superior to the Respect for People Pillar. Taiichi Ohno specifically stated that the pillars are “equally important.”

In his blog, Mark Graban shares his appreciation of how the two pillars are intertwined:

“We practice Continuous Improvement because we have Respect for People . . . we practice Respect for People by engaging people in Continuous Improvement and challenging them to perform better . . . for the safety of our customers and our patients (who we have respect for).”

So then, what is Respect for People?

If Respect for People can’t be simply defined here, then how can we really know what it is? The answer is to study, explore, and practice. I am providing a few examples of how Respect for People shows up in our leadership beliefs (thinking), behaviors, and systems and then some specific steps you can take to clarify what it means to you. This is by no means an exhaustive list – just a primer.

Respect for People in Lean Leadership Beliefs

1. Respect for Humanity

In Gemba Academy blogs, Jon Miller often shares that the true intention behind the Japanese phrase is more along the lines of “holding precious what it is to be human”, “valuing humanity” or even “respect for humanity”. This is a deeper intention than the commonality of respect.

When I think about what it means to be human, I think of things like our brains and our abilities to think, reason, and have imagination. About free-will and our abilities to make our own decisions. About our emotions and craving connection with others. And about our abilities to learn and build upon those learnings day after day. I am on a mission to make the world of work more human – and reasoning, decision-making, feelings, connection, and learning are all part of that.

Think about what humanness or what it is to be human means to you. How can you incorporate that into your leadership beliefs?

2. Respecting People’s Ability to Think

A Toyota Plant in Japan has a sign that reads:

“Respect for people is the attitude that regards people’s ability to think most”

Jon Miller explored the idea of challenging employees to prevent boredom in order to improve employee engagement: “Each individual human brings their unique perspectives, strengths and life experience to an organization. Human brains are amazing things. Respect for humanity means leaders must make an effort to understand our collective nature as a species and enable us to do our best each day. Stop boring people, and start designing work around learning. The results will follow.”

Sometimes as leaders, we just wish that our team members would adopt some idea or process more quickly. We wish they wouldn’t challenge us so much. How aligned is this with honoring and respecting people’s ability to think?

Sometimes as leaders, we do the problem-solving and just give the answers to the team – because we think we know better or because we think it’s faster or because it’s just a habit we’ve formed over the years. How aligned is this with honoring and respecting people’s ability to think?

3. Truly Human Leadership

One of the biggest influences as I changed my mind and began understanding and embracing Respect for People was Bob Chapman’s TEDx talk on Truly Human Leadership. Chapman contrasts the traditional management teachings that people are objects for our success with his ideas of Truly Human Leadership, in which everybody matters.

Watch Chapman’s TEDx Talk. How do Chapman’s stories relate to your own beliefs about your role as a leader?

Respect for People in Lean Leadership Behaviors

1. How You Treat Everyone

Bob Emiliani makes the point that in the Respect for People pillar, people is much broader than just employees. He argues that people includes all stakeholders – “employees, suppliers, customers, investors, communities, and competitors – and hence humanity.”

It’s generally pretty easy for us to think about our team members and our customers when we think about creating value and respecting people. But what about all of those others? How do we treat our vendors? Our competitors? Our business partners across the organization?

I know I have caught myself in the past dismissing other departments – and doing it in front of people in my span of care. Not only was I dismissive, but I sent a very clear signal to others that they could do the same.

How do you treat everyone – including those stakeholders you may not have thought too much about before?

2. Developing People

In the foreword to the book Lead with Respect, Jim Womack wrote:

“The key behavior [of a transformational Lean leader] is to lead with respect by developing the problem-solving skills of everyone at every level of the organization.”

Developing people will inherently involve some conflict. It’s a learning process, and so there will be disagreements and failures and taking people outside of their comfort zones.

Jim Womack expands on this idea as he describes how Toyota managers said they show respect for people. “The manager after all doesn’t just say ‘I trust you to solve the problem because I respect you. Do it your way and get on with it.’ And the manager isn’t a morale booster, always saying, ‘Great job!’ Instead the manager challenges the employees every step of the way, asking for more thought, more facts, and more discussion, when the employees just want to implement their favored solution.”

How much time do we devote to developing people? Is it our top priority? Can you prove it by showing that you spend more time on developing people than anything else?

And how do we develop people? Do we ask good, meaningful questions that help team members think and become better problem solvers?

3. Listening for Impact

In the Bob Chapman video I referenced earlier, Chapman talks about a communications class facilitated at Barry-Wehmiller. He says that the biggest thing people learn in the class is that they learn to listen.

Listening isn’t just catching the “gist” of what someone is saying and then formulating a response. Listening for Impact is a set of behaviors I teach and coach that help leaders be present and truly listen. It helps leaders not just understand what others are saying, but leaves others feeling valued and learning through the experience.

Pay attention to your communication interactions over the next week and assess how you did. Were you fully present or distracted with your email or phone or thoughts of the day? Did you take the monkey from the other person and send them on the way or did you listen so that the other person could solve his or her own problem? Did you assume positive intent or did you tell yourself a story based on your own biases?

Respect for People in Lean Leadership Processes and Systems

1. Creating a Safe Environment for Problem Raising Systems

Problem raising is as critical a component of Lean as problem solving. It’s one of the big differentiators between Lean and traditional organizations – that people learn to see and raise problems. So as leaders, we need systems that enable problem raising – whether that’s through our Gemba Walks or Huddles or Impact Listening Sessions or One-on-Ones. Whatever systems you use, it’s important that you have one (or more) as this is one way that Respect for People actually shows up in practice.

The first thing you need for problem raising to occur is a safe environment – not just physically, but emotionally as well. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people first need to meet physiological needs then safety and security needs, then love and belonging needs, followed by esteem and then self-actualization.Types of Safety PyramidFear of job loss or being reprimanded on the job hits team members at those bottom levels. Fear of humiliation or embarrassment or dismissal hits team members at those middle levels.

What are you doing to create a safe environment for problem raising? What more could you do?

2. Engaging Through Routine Processes and Systems

Another leadership system that helps you demonstrate Respect for People is engaging team members through routines. Gemba Walks are a great example of this. Other routines include Stand in a Circle exercises along with a team member, Kata Coaching at the gemba, regularly scheduled Kaizen events with the team, daily improvement sharing with the team in huddles, Leader Standard Work routines, and Training Within Industry (TWI) teaching and coaching sessions.

In a blog outlining practical ways to practice Respect for People, Ron Pereira includes Engaging the Gemba as one way: “There are many benefits to this. . . but one that doesn’t get enough press, in my opinion, is that by going to the gemba you’re able to actually engage in the situation. In fact, you may be able to actually get your hands dirty while helping solve the problem.”

The keys to these routines are that they are (1) regular; (2) engaging; and (3) occur at the gemba. Spending your time at the gemba engaging with team members is more than an ad-hoc behavior to adopt – it’s something you want to turn into a system. Be frequent and consistent.

3. Using Feedback Loops in Your Systems

So let’s say you’ve created a safe environment and a system for problem-raising. And you have a system (or two or three or four) to engage team members at the gemba to get their feedback and help develop their capabilities. You’re learning all kinds of things. But you can’t just absorb the information and then let it stop at that point.

You also need systematic feedback loops. Follow-up and follow-through are critical. Learning is critical. Sharing is critical. So take the problem-raising and gemba-engaging systems you have and ensure there are feedback loops built in to them. This will demonstrate respect to your team members (and business partners, customers, vendors, etc. for those systems) by ensuring feedback is turned into action.

Take Action: Define What Respect for People Means to You (for now)

In my leadership – and so many other leaders I’ve coached over the years – getting clear on Respect for People gave us a greater purpose of leadership. A purpose that transcends organizational goals or metrics and moves to a people-driven, humanity-driven, making-the-world-a-better-place type of leadership purpose. A purpose that makes all of the learning, change, and burden that goes along with leading with Lean worth it.

So now it’s your turn to define what Respect for People means to you:

1. Listen to this podcast

A couple of years ago, my good friends at Gemba Academy compiled a Respect for People with Past Guests podcast for me to use for leadership development with those in my span of care. Take the time to listen to these thought leaders and consider their perspectives.

2. Observe and make note of current state

After you listen, spend a few days observing your interactions, the team interactions, and the overall work culture artifacts. Make note of what you see, hear, and feel.

3. Write your own definition and try to practice it daily

Then, write out what Respect for People means to you and what that looks like in practice. Taking this action to discover and write out what ♫ R-E-S-P-E-C-T ♫ means to you will help you gain clarity and lead in a way that is aligned with your own definition.

4. Make an appointment to revisit

And finally, make a date with yourself to revisit your own definition next year – and every year. You will probably find that your definition evolves as you gain experience and practice. I know I have!

I’d love to hear how you define Respect for People – reply back and let me know!

And don’t forget to download a FREE PDF to assess and track your improvement in fifteen Process + Results Lean Leadership areas!

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