Assessing “Respect for People” on a Gemba Walk

In a comment posted to an article about 3 things to check during a gemba walk, lean thinker and author Bob Emiliani commented:

For decades the focus of gemba walks has been on operations and evaluating continuous improvement activities – e.g. whether or not Lean tools are in use. That has never been sufficient. Gemba walks must include a strong focus on the “Respect for People” principle. This is long overdue.

Bob is right. Even if a company met all criteria of a lean operations checklist such as the one we shared, which focused on standardized work, kanban and hour by hour boards (production control boards) this is not sufficient evidence that a company is on a sustainable lean journey. It is possible to attain a certain superficial level of operational excellence without deeply embedded people systems based on respect. However a “respect for people checklist” for a quick gemba walk may be a bit disrespectful. While it is possible to pick up the signs of a lack of respect, it is too easy to fake the signs of respect for people. It is much harder to fake a functioning kanban system, the proper use of an hour by hour board (just ask to see how they responded to problems within the last hour) and standardized work. Either you have it or you don’t.

The challenge of checking for evidence of “respect for people” lies in the fact that this concept is poorly defined and unlike visible elements of the operating system, highly subjective and open to interpretation. The original Toyota phrase was “respect for humanity” or “respect for humanness”. The original meant something different than respect for people, although the distinction is subtle. For the purpose of discussion most lean companies focus on “people” within their immediate influence, which is a sensible place to start. Even with this narrow definition the interpretation is subjective and culture-sensitive. What Americans may consider an adequate level of respect for people may appall the Swedes, while to a stereotypical sweat shop worker the fine points of respect may not even be meaningful distinctions: either the workplace provides for their day-to-day needs or it doesn’t.

This does not mean that we can’t look for the visible signs of respect for people, take the evidence at face value and check that the process (these signs) and results (performance) are correlated. Here are five areas based on lean practices taken from the TPS playbook:

Safety. Valuing the safety and health of workers is the first and most basic sign of respect for people. All employees should be able to work in safety and health in the broadest definition possible. Although many office-based businesses shrug at the lean call for safety, they should not. There are plenty of ways we make ourselves sick and tired regardless of the type of work we do, and recognizing that this is unacceptable and that we can change is key to credibility with regards to respect for people. Look for and ask:

  • Is there near miss awareness and reduction activity (KYT) or equivalent in each workplace?
  • Does each team design their work or work area to require physical exercise in the morning or at some point during the day?
  • Is the food and drink made available on premises healthy?
  • Is the quality of the air, water and general environment promoting safety and health?
  • Are people attuned to each others’ complexion, facial expressions, voice and physical movements for signs of poor health?

Sharing information. People need to feel secure, or at the very least to not be in the dark about their own employment situation. What people are not told about how the business is doing, they will piece together on their own, often based on a mix of gossip and conjecture. A workplace based on respect shares this information. The key question to ask is, “If I was a worker at this company how easy would it be for me to know exactly how we are getting on as a business?” Some things to check for may include:

  • Do the main gates, the parking lot and surrounding grounds communicate and inspire confidence in the company?
  • Is the company policy (hoshin) visible, both in terms of vision / mission statements and annual objectives, in the lobby?
  • Are these clearly related and broken down to individual departments, zones or teams?
  • Is the current sales or the overall business performance communicated simply and visually to all team members?
  • Is the team performance in terms of output and quality visible at the workplace?

Mutual respect between individuals. Respect for people is often spoken in vague terms but in order to check for it we must be as specific and local as possible. Recognition of and showing respect for each individual by each individual includes checking these things:

  • Do people greet one another affirmatively?
  • Are morning meetings held to bring individuals together, take the pulse of the group, and set out the priorities for the day?
  • Does every team have a visible identity that includes identifying each of the individual members by at least name and face?
  • Is everyone explicitly and regularly asked expose problem and contribute their creative capabilities towards problem solving?
  • Are individuals and their contributions recognized in visible and public ways in the work place?

Development of people. The systematic development of people by the leadership of the organization is a hallmark of long-term thinking, valuing the potential of people, and the adoption of lean enterprise principles beyond the improvement tools and control systems. This can take a variety of forms and depending on the labor profile of the business (career professional workers versus seasonal agricultural labor) the specific application may be different, so these questions are necessarily vague:

  • Is there a system for cross training people by rotating through various jobs?
  • Is there a system for training, certifying and visually recognizing special skills?
  • Are problem solving skills part of the people development system?
  • Is there a system for training people towards a professional or career goal?
  • Does the leadership have a clear policy stating that developing its people is a high priority?

Taking responsibility. All of the above are nice but at risk of constant erosion when faced with the realities and challenges of business. First on the list in terms of importance and last to check should be the level of self-respect held by people within the organization. Differing from pride, self-respect is the willingness to take responsibility for the outcomes, do what is agreed. A good way to build trust is to demonstrate responsibility. This takes us back to the familiar territory of lean tools:

  • Does every person, both direct and indirect, have standardized work?
  • Is there evidence that the standardized work has been used, found to be imperfect, and that kaizen was done to improve the standard?
  • Is the standardized work audited?
  • Are there support system to respond to andon calls when standard are not or cannot be met?
  • Do decisions made by leaders result in auditable standards, agreements, promises, rules or other signs of taking responsibility?

It is too easy to pay lip service to lean, attempt a few superficial activities, and say “we did lean”. These are typically stalled or failing lean implementations. The definition of irony is discovering a dusty and torn 5S banner during a red tagging event at a company who swore “we have never attempted 5S before”. We have seen this happen. Anyone who has been working in the modern business world for more than 20 years can attest to many “continuous improvement” efforts that have come and gone. To Bob’s point, many of these continuous improvement efforts faltered because they were not woven tightly into the people systems within the organization including hiring, orientation, development, recognition, promotion, and strategic management.

In the same way that companies pay lip service to lean and its technical aspects, can one pay lip service to respect for people? Is it possible to treat respect for people as yet another lean tool, a box to check, a criteria to meet in order to drive for results and achieve gold certification? I am afraid so. This is why a “respect for people” checklist scares me. If on the other hand we design the checklist as a series of deeply held underlying values and behaviors then there is no quick way to check it since these things require observation and confirmation over time. Use the checklist above at your own risk and discretion.

Personally, I don’t believe it is useful to highlight the two pillars of respect for people and continuous improvement or to treat them separately. Kaizen without respect for people is just work intensification and respect for people without kaizen is just impractical and unsustainable social welfare. Each is essential to the success of the other. Rather than checking for evidence of respect for people separately we should look and listen for evidence of this within the visible systems that we check for during gemba walks. The checklist above may help us integrate the two halves.

While it’s trite to say that people have unlimited creative potential, what we know of history does support the idea that we have the ability to create new ideas, recombine existing ideas, solve problems and advance our knowledge steadily. Many people find creative work fulfilling and fun.

Those whose work is not creative often have hobbies or interests that allow them to create, develop their skills and capabilities, or explore new things. We can safely say this is one of humanity’s more positive traits. We should respect it and strive to build systems in our society, workplace and individual lives to promote the creation of more goodness.

5 Comments

  1. Mark R Hamel

    November 15, 2010 - 5:37 am

    Hi Jon,
    Here’s one place that will give you a quick read – the humble employee restroom(s). Are they clean, well maintained, sufficient, etc.? Restrooms provide a window into whether or not leadership truly respects their people and whether employees respect one another.
    It’s hard to fake there.

  2. Bob Emiliani

    November 15, 2010 - 8:38 am

    Hi Jon – That is a very thoughtful and practical post. I would like to add a few points regarding the “Respect for People” principle:
    1) “People” must include all key stakeholders: employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities;
    2) A checklist is not a bad start, but, like anything, it must be done thoughtfully;
    3) Evidence for “Respect for People” principle must be done in combination with evaluation of ongoing evidence of continuous improvement. I did not mean to imply otherwise; and
    4) I do not view “Respect for People” principle as poorly defined or highly subjective.
    For example, zero-sum management decisions and outcomes (win-lose) are a simple, yet very revealing indicator of the absence of the “Respect for People” principle. If there is no qualified job guarantee – i.e. no layoffs due to kaizen, the “Respect for People” principle is absent. If there is no quarterly profit sharing (e.g. 15% of pre-tax income divided by total straight time wages), then the “Respect for People” principle is absent. If there is huge pay disparity between workers and the president/CEO, then the “Respect for People” principle is absent. We cannot forget that real wages of workers have declined by more than 5% over the last 30 years.
    Regarding the categories you listed in your post, In would like to include some other things to look for and ask, which I have simply culled from my REAL LEAN book series:
    Safety – The emphasis is always on physical safety. What about mental safety? Is there fear in the workplace? Are people blamed for making errors? Management should have a no-blame policy and there should be clear evidence of its practice. Are workers being put in harm’s way by having to work to metrics that are designed for batch-and-queue: e.g. PPV and earned hours? Are employees inadvertently being set-up to fail?
    Sharing Information – How does the senior management team process information? Is it batch or flow? It should obviously be flow, and one should look for evidence of this. Also, is there profit sharing, which is another form of information sharing (e.g. “We’re doing well.”).
    Mutual Respect Between Individuals – I would add mutual respect between functions/disciplines. Too often there are wasteful rivalries between departments (e.g. engineering and operations, finance and manufacturing, etc.). I would also add mutual respect for stakeholders (employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities). For example, senior managers often say “customer-first,” but their decisions and actions are actually “shareholder-first.” There is a lack of balance.
    Development of People – I would add development of stakeholders: suppliers (including minority and women-owned businesses), investors (improving their understanding of Lean management), etc. What has management done to improve relations with suppliers? Or are they squeezing them on price using reverse auctions? Is senior management personally involved in kaizen, to develop their own problem-solving capabilities and then applying what they learned to their job? If not, then they are not developing themselves and also not leading by example.
    Taking Responsibility – Do functional executives recognize inter-connections between functions? Are they siloed in their responsibilities or cross-functional? Does Human Resources accept any responsibility for the performance of operations; Finance for quality; Engineering for on-time delivery, etc? If not, then responsibility is not being taken by senior managers. If wasteful, zero-sum organizational politics thrives, then responsibility is not being taken by senior managers.
    My point here is that each of these categories, and others, must be thought of more broadly and go beyond the shop floor into all levels – especially into the executive-level, because they can do far more to help establish REAL Lean (CI+RP) in the organization.

  3. Jon Miller

    November 15, 2010 - 9:56 am

    Hi Bob
    Thanks for your valuable additions.
    In response to your closing paragraph I would like to clarify that the article does not imply a shop floor focus. A “gemba” walk is the process of making the rounds of any workplace including those at the leadership levels.
    We should think more broadly but act more narrowly – expose the executives to the concrete, grime and noise of the shop floor whenever possible to stimulate the look-listen-learn process.

  4. Brian Buck

    November 15, 2010 - 10:26 am

    Jon, thank you for highlighting the Respect For People pillar. I agree with everything you wrote here.
    Something I have been noodling around is Toyota’s definition of RFP as “mutual trust” between leadership and front-line (plus the list of groups that Bob provides).
    While one would think respect and trust are the same thing, I think you can make the argument that you should aim for both. Leaders sometimes assume they are trusted but don’t focus on developing that trust. Leaders need to be reflective about if their behaviors display they trust their workers.

  5. Jon Miller

    November 15, 2010 - 11:09 am

    Hi Brian
    You raise a good point. Respect and mutual trust are very different things. It is possible to have one without the other but both are necessary for a healthy relationship. For example we all respect people (out of fear or awe) that we may not necessarily trust. At the same time we may completely trust a person or organization we loathe to do something or be reliable, without earning our respect.
    I used “mutual respect” instead of Toyota’s “mutual trust” because I think trust is an output of all of these actions, not an input. No matter how much we place trust in others, it does not result in mutual trust without action to earn the trust. Creating a safe environment, showing mutual respect, taking responsibility etc. result in trust.
    As such it would be hard to check for evidence of mutual trust on a gemba walk or even a deeper diagnostic.