Scott contributed a comment to a recent article on how to motivate front line workers:
I never liked the expression that “people are your greatest asset”. People should never be looked upon as an asset. An asset is defined as property owned and controlled by the firm. People cannot be controlled, only influenced, and are certainly not owned. Therefore, people should be looked upon as members. Members are stakeholders in an organization. This recognition is one step towards respect for people, versus looking at them as objects.
The notion that Toyota puts people on the asset column of the balance sheet is a piece of the Toyota mythos that has entered the consciousness of lean thinkers. I don’t know the exact source of this idea. Likely it was an interpretation of a comment or a fragment of a speech made by one of Toyota’s Japanese leaders in reference to how they value their people. It would be interesting to see the original quote. The term “zaisan” is often translated as asset, even though it means also “wealth” or “riches” that belong to a person, family or company. Scott may argue that people are not riches that “belong” to a company, but we could say people belong as a member belongs to a team.
In English we use the term “asset” rather loosely to mean strengths, skills or capabilities that confer some advantage and not always in the strict financial asset definition that Scott describes above. However, he raises a good point that speaking of people in terms of assets can risk dehumanizing people. This raises a few questions:
1) Does your organization view or describe people as their greatest asset or contributing factor to generating value?
2) If your organization does not view people as their greatest asset, would there be more or less harm in your company if the leadership began believing in and referring to people as their greatest asset?
3) Is it possible to view and refer to people as assets and still respect them as individuals without dehumanizing them or thinking of them as controllable resources?
And a bonus question, if the answer to 1 was “no” then what exactly does your organization believe is your greatest asset?