Respect for People and Underutilization of Talent

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janitor sweeping manufacturing floorThe two pillars in Lean Thinking are Continuous Improvement and Respect for People.  What is not well understood is that most of what we know as The Toyota Production System comes from these two pillars.  The Lean sub-culture tends to over-emphasize the “tools” of Kaizen, but miss the point altogether, since the tools stem or originate from one of the pillars above.  The relationship between the 2 Pillars and Waste is subtle, but important.

For example, let’s take the Andon Cord, a tool in the Toyota Production System.

An Andon is a cord that hangs on both sides of a production line. It is to be ‘pulled’ when a problem happens on the line and, when pulled, production stops on the line, loud irritating Japanese music blasts through the speakers, bringing attention to everybody that there is a problem.  The team gathers together, conducts root cause analysis (5-why’s), implements countermeasures (solutions on the spot), then the production line start again and the Japanese music stops.

andon cord example

Now, suppose your organization breeds fear in its people and that questioning the status quo or speaking-up when there is a problem is viewed as bad. In this type of environment, implementing the ‘tool’ of an Andon Cord will not work.  Why?  An Andon Cord is just a tool, but it represents an organizational tenet of “if there’s a problem, please speak your mind and be not afraid.”  If that tenet doesn’t exist, then it makes sense that nobody will pull the Andon Cord.

Changing Worldview, Changing Behaviors

Lean Thinking is more about changing worldview and behaviors:

when you change a person’s worldview, a change in their behavior will follow, then they begin to improve their world

In this specific example, an Andon Cord did not work because the fundamental worldview of the company is that they do not want to know if there are problems, or that they do not value the employees’ opinions or input — THAT is a bigger problem than the cumulative effect of all defects in the company (more precisely, that is the root cause of waste as well as issues in organizational effectiveness).

For this example, here is what is at play:

  1. Speak-up if you see a problem
  2. Don’t pass problems up or down the value chain
  3. Improve the way you work, the service, and the product
  4. There is an end-customer, but the person upstream and downstream from you is also your customer

If an organization doesn’t subscribe to these basic principles, then no matter how many Andon Cords are available at your company — nobody will pull them.

Underutilized People

Switching gears now.  A related tenet to the Respect for People Pillar, is the idea of Underutilized People.  While not officially one of the 7 Wastes in Lean, Underutilized People clearly sits in the Respect for People Pillar.

Barry Schwartz, in an inspiring TED talk on Practical Wisdom, explains the impact on the organization and customers when the company structure and values creates underutilized people:

In this talk, Schwartz tells us about a hospital janitor, showing the responsibilities associated with the job in their job description.  Of all the Janitor job descriptions, not a single one involves interacting with other people.  When Schwartz interviewed hospital janitors about the challenges of their jobs, all the problems they listed dealt with other people.

For example, good janitors knew not to vacuum the floor when guests were napping, or not to mop the floor when a patient was walking the hallways and restoring his strength.  Being a hospital janitor involves interactions that require kindness, care and empathic thought that’s not in the job description.

To test Barry Schwartz’s findings, I went to and search for “Hospital Janitor”.  The job description is one I found for an Elderly Care Facility:

  • Cleans and maintains entry lobby, including cleaning of windows, doors, mopping floors, vacuuming carpets, etc., at least daily, and more if necessary to maintain excellent entrance appeal.
  • Cleans laundry room, community room, conference room, and management offices on a daily basis.
  • Vacuums hallways on a daily basis.
  • Cleans community bathrooms on a daily basis, more if necessary to maintain in a sanitary manner.
  • Cleans stairways and elevators on a regularly scheduled basis.
  • Does cleaning of units, including stoves, refrigerators, bathrooms, floors, windows, etc.
  • Reports all maintenance repairs needed to Maintenance Supervisor.
  • Sweeps and cleans parking lot on daily basis.
  • Waters flower box on a daily basis (seasonal).
  • Picks up trash from grounds.
  • Uses hose to clean front entry walks.
  • Changes all light bulbs in hallways and common areas.
  • Does minor work orders for residents and/or management as assigned by Maintenance Supervisor.
  • Reliable…Must be able to work a flexible work schedule

Not one of the requirements deals with elderly patients, listening to them tell war stories, smiling at them, or any other small nice-ities that can make the day for an elderly person.  This job description reflects the values of the company.

A Long-Winded, Jagged Post

Yes, a lot of inter-related ideas in this post.  Here’s the point:

Worldview and Values matter – those dictate the behaviors of everybody in the company.  When “tools” don’t work, that is because the values don’t support the “tools”.  Focus on Worldview and Behavior — then the rest will follow.


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