Exploring the “Respect for People” Principle of the Toyota Way

Author, Professor and lean thinker Bob Emiliani has made another important contribution with his new book Practical Lean Leadership. I had the pleasure of reviewing and giving editorial input on this fine book and would recommend it for lean leaders. Most recently Bob wrote an excellent article titled The Equally Important “Respect for People” Principle. Please read this article and look for Bob’s new book.

The two key points of the article are:

The “Respect for People” principle is one of two pillars of The Toyota Way [1]; the other is “Continuous Improvement.” The “Respect for People” principle has existed for several decades within Toyota’s management system, but has been almost entirely ignored by outsiders.

Emphasis mine, and further:

The “Respect for People” principle is deceptive in that it seems very easy to understand and apply, but it is not. Most mid- and senior-level managers think they know what “Respect for People” means, but it is clear from leadership behaviors, common business performance metrics, company policies, management’s decisions, and sometimes even corporate strategy, that they do not.

We’ve been missing a big part of what it means to be lean, and people largely still don’t get it, in other words. The good news is that more people are taking a look at “respect for people” as an aspect of the excellence at Toyota that needs to be understood and copied. The bad news is that unlike the Toyota Production System and kaizen, there is much less of this that is physically visible. By nature, “respect for people” is a mindset and a set of behaviors that result from it. Without experiencing it day to day it is hard to understand, so it is no surprise that many studies have focused on the surface of the Toyota way: methods of management and daily work as well as material and information flow.

“Respect for People”?

If we are to explore the notion of “respect for people” and make practical use of this in combination of our arguably mature understanding of kaizen or continuous improvement with the aim of emulating the excellence of Toyota we need to study the broader context of what “respect for people” means: even to the point of questioning the appropriateness of these words themselves. The Toyota corporate website makes public a surprising amount of detail on the guiding principles, precepts and code of conduct for people at Toyota. This page provides PDF links to the relevant documents.

If the Toyota Production System is represented as the TPS house, perhaps the diagram above is the basement and crawlspace of said house.

The phrase “respect for people” appears in quotations here because I don’t believe those English words do justice to the principle itself as it is embodied at Toyota. One of my great joys as a Japanese-English interpreter for Japanese sense from the Toyota group was to rescue bits of wisdom either lost in translation or in danger of being lost. The term “respect for people” may be in such danger. A closer look at the original Japanese term used at Toyota, as well as the context within which it used and its historical origin may help us in our rescue efforts.

Holding Precious What it is to be Human

The phrase 人間尊重 is not rare within the CSR (corporate social responsibility) statements of major Japanese corporations. The word 人間 means “human”, “humans” or “people” and 尊重 can be translated as “respect”. But the phrase used at Toyota is a bit different. It is 人間性尊重. The observant reader or student of Asian languages may recognize the extra character making “human” or “people” into “humanity” or “humanness”.

For the curious, the red bubble is continuous improvement (wits and kaizen) with branches including challenge, kaizen and genchi genbutsu while the green bubble is “respect for people” with the branches “respect” and team work.
We can gain a better understanding for the Japanese word Toyota uses for “respect” if we break it down into its constituent parts. The phrase 尊い means “preciousness” or “valued” while by itself the character 尊 is an honorific used to refer to buddhas, the emperor or gods. Combined with other characters it can mean revere or respect. In this case it is combined with 重 which means “heavy,” “main,” “principal” or “important” and means to respect or value something. The distinction not to be missed is that between “respect” as in to hold precious or value, not as in to look up to, to defer to or look up or to obey.

So our current understanding of “respect for people” must be broader than simply respecting the rights of every person within a free society or to honor and respect our elders or our peers. To be wordy, the literal meaning of Toyota’s phrase 人間性尊重 is “holding precious what it is to be human” and once could say “valuing humanity” or even “respect for humanity” but “respect for people” in my view is pithy but does not convey the full weight of these words in the original language.

Valuing Humanity in Toyota’s Guiding Principles

Of the seven Guiding Principles at Toyota the one which most directly addressed the question of “respect for people” is the fifth, while each one touches on humanity or what it is to be human such as honoring the ways of each nation (1), respecting and contributing to communities (2), enhancing the quality of life (3) harmony with the global community (6) with principles 4 and 7 being the most obvious and long-term profit seeking corporate principles.

The Guiding Principles at Toyota as they appear on the Toyota website are:

1.Honor the language and spirit of the law of every nation and undertake open and fair corporate activities to be a good corporate citizen around the world
2.Respect the culture and customs of every nation and contribute to economic and social development through corporate activities in local communities
3.Dedicate ourselves to providing clean and safe products and to enhancing the quality of life everywhere through our activities
4.Create and develop advanced technologies and provide outstanding products and services that fulfill the needs of customers worldwide
5.Foster a corporate culture that enhances individual creativity and teamwork value, while honoring mutual trust and respect between labor and management
6.Pursue growth in harmony with the global community through innovative management
7.Work with business partners in research and creation to achieve stable long-term growth and mutual benefits, while keeping ourselves open to new partnerships

This is a very broad and humanistic set of guiding principles for what is essentially an industrial company building a mass market product. Clearly the human-centered approach has worked for Toyota, but what led them value humanity so strongly when essentially their mission has been to build things that go zoom?

Venerate the Gods

The philosophy of Toyota has been very strongly influenced by the life, work and world view of inventor and founder Sakichi Toyoda. This world view results in part from his Buddhist faith. Although even today one can find shrines to various Shinto gods on the premises of major Japanese corporations for various reasons (it was there before the factory was built; offering prayers for health, safety or prosperity; community solidarity; faith of the founding family) the influence of Sakichi Toyoda’s faith on Toyota’s practice of “respect for people” today can be seen most directly in what are called The Toyota Precepts. These words of Sakichi Toyoda have been part of the Toyota philosophy for three quarters of a century:

The Toyota Precepts

1.Be contributive to the development and welfare of the country by working together, regardless of position, in faithfully fulfilling your duties.
1.Be ahead of the times through endless creativity, inquisitiveness and pursuit of improvement.
1.Be practical and avoid frivolity.
1.Be kind and generous; strive to create a warm, homelike atmosphere.
1.Be reverent, and show gratitude for things great and small in thought and deed.

There is wisdom here, but nothing extraordinary, at least in the English translation. Here are the Toyota Precepts as they appear on the Toyota website in Japanese. They are useful for the purpose of identifying one significant difference in translation of these Precepts which may illuminate an important underlying founding intent of Toyota and its influence on the principle of “respect for people”. The fifth and last Precept literally says (my translation):

Venerate the gods and buddhas and live a life of gratitude and repayment for kindness.

It is understandable that the English version of the fifth point in the Precepts is phrased as it is. First, with the rare historical exception of politicized or militant sects, Buddhists are not evangelical (Sakichi Toyoda’s Nichiren sect is arguably one of the more evangelical ones within Buddhism). There is no desire here to convert others to their faith as other religions do, and therefore no doctrinal or faith-based need to leave “god” in these Precepts. Second, it may not even be legal in the United States for a publicly traded company to state in official company documents a requirement that one “venerate the gods”. One can imagine the frivolous lawsuits, Precept 3 notwithstanding. Third, the direct reference to “gods and buddhas” within the context of Japanese religious culture of 8 million gods and sundry bodhisattvas is closer in meaning to “respect for all things great and small” than to any particular set of named gods. Therefore, we can understand why outside the context of Japanese history and society and for the purpose of corporate communications “gods and bodhisattvas” were left out. Yet it is useful to know that they exist in the original and influence the notion of “respect for people” or holding precious what it is to be human.

Toyota’s Basic Thinking on the Development of People

All of this grand talk of humanity, the world and gods aside, there is an inherently practical aspect to “respect for people” at Toyota which must not be overlooked. For Toyota “respect for people” is also a business tool best represented by their excellence in the area of the development of people. It is important to note that many companies in Japan and in other countries may do a fine job of developing people, but only Toyota has parlayed that into 50 years of successful growth, consistent profitability, and preeminence in the global market by vehicles sold. The following are some of the common elements of the basic thinking of Toyota on the development of people:

Building things starts with building people. Another way to say this is that it is necessary to develop good people in order to make good products. Automation may surpass capabilities of human workers, but it is people who advance technology, and people who develop such technologists.

People development is centered on the gemba.
Workplace-centered or OJT (on the job) training is the primary means of people development. Off-JT as well as expert training also exists at Toyota but the primary class room is the gemba.

Mutual development by superiors and subordinates. This may be Taiichi Ohno’s game of wits come to full fruition if practice in its ideal form where juniors and seniors can learn from each other.

Repay the debt of being taught by teaching your juniors. Whenever we have the privilege to visit Toyota in Japan and speak with very senior or retired executives, there is always an expression of gratitude towards the people who came before (sensei) an taught them. They are open to teaching us because even after they leave Toyota they want to repay their debt, echoing Sakichi’s fifth Precept.

First Things First
When we value something, we put it first. We place it in a position of reverence, esteem or honor. The things we hold precious are the things we put first. One might even say that we humbly submit before the things we truly respect and hold precious. In kaizen when we clearly understand what the customer values we put that value first by seeking to eliminate all waste. Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people advise us to put first things first (oddly, as the third of seven steps). It is this habit of venerating all things and placing others first out of humility that is the essence of what we are seeking to practice as “respect for people” in the pursuit of lean management.


  1. Brian Buck

    February 4, 2008 - 7:24 am

    Incredible post. I really like how you drove deep into this instead of a high level overview. Utilizing the actual Japanese characters was fascinating.
    Thank you for this.

  2. David Moles

    February 6, 2008 - 1:33 am

    Really excellent. I love the “basic thinking on the development of people”; it has that flavor of essential humility and learning-by-doing that seems to be a core Japanese approach to learning, from sushi-making to martial arts — and that seems to be completely missing from the bushido fetishism that informs so much Western writing on Japanese business.

  3. Jon Miller

    February 7, 2008 - 8:53 pm

    Thanks Dave. You make a great point.
    I’m learning first hand that there’s something to be said for mindless repetition as a means of learning, comparing how my daughter is being taught math to how it was drilled into me in Japan as a kid.
    Applied to business I see a similar lack of drilling of new hires in how work is done at Western companies. To some degree people are expected to carve their own path and heroes are rewarded for coping within bad processes. There is a militaristic aspect to the senior-to-junior learning Toyota that comes in part from Japanese bushido culture, perhaps.
    TPS consultants will always have work as long as Western managers copy form without the core approach to learning and teaching on the gemba. It’s not something to be happy about but it’s part of what it is to be human.

  4. Bryan Lund

    February 7, 2008 - 9:45 pm

    Hi Jon,
    Great post. Drilling on skills using OJT is key to development of people in a lean culture and you lay it out beautifully here. The Job Instruction program is so useful that I can’t imagine a radically different way of teaching people. Ironically for a company like Toyota that is constantly changing, they have used JI for over 60 years now, and it was unchanged for about 40 years before that! Its the paradox of conservative values with constant disciplined changing of the standards that I love about lean. You captured here in this post how Toyota values their people for trying to change and adhere to standards.

  5. Jon Miller

    February 7, 2008 - 10:25 pm

    Thanks Brian,
    Great comment about JI and TWI. The sad irony is that the U.S. developed and abandoned it. The U.S. was able to invent such a practical people development method for the war effort but after the war we lacked the urgent business need as Japan had after the devastation of WWII, or the cultural commitment to value sensei (teachers) highly and developing human potential. As a result TWI and JI slept for 50 years in the U.S.
    Thanks for all you are doing to change that.

  6. Roman

    February 19, 2008 - 3:31 pm

    Longtime lurker here. Great post! As Bryan said above, I really liked the way you drilled down into the various meanings and the depth of those meanings.
    I can reaffirm what you say about Toyota veterans wanting to repay the debt they owe. I had an opportunity to see Mr. Cho speak on the subject while he was still working here in the States. Although the speech was in Japanese, his body language and the passion with which he spoke made the message come across as very sincere. The translation was a bit dry, but we could easily see that he believed and meant every word.
    I hope to one day repay my own debt.

  7. Jon Miller

    February 20, 2008 - 9:11 pm

    Hello Roman,
    Thank you for sharing that personal experience. We need more leaders like Mr. Cho who can lead from humility and gratitude, as well as strength.

  8. June

    March 24, 2008 - 1:30 pm

    Hello, Jon,
    Really enjoyed your post and appreciated especially your effort in translating/interpreting the meaning of “Respect for People”. Superb!
    I am curious if you know of any success stories of implementing the “lean manufacturing” or Kaizen principle in a research organization, where productivity is measured not by the number and quality of parts/time.
    Thank you.

  9. Jon Miller

    March 26, 2008 - 10:43 am

    Hi June,
    I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    I don’t know any success stories of implementing lean in research organizations per se, although we know of efforts to bring various lean tools such as 5S to these sorts of workplaces.
    If I do come across some information I will post it here or send it to you.

  10. Erica Lee

    July 16, 2009 - 9:22 am

    This is extremely interesting, inspiring and useful; on a personal as well as a professional level. Having studied it for many years for the purposes of benchmarking our company’s Lean/CI system, I’ve long suspected Toyota had soul as well as smarts and heart. Your post confirms my suspiscion! Thanks for taking the time to delve into the translation. I look forward to checking out some of your other posts.

  11. Erica Lee

    July 16, 2009 - 11:42 am

    This is extremely interesting, inspiring and useful; on a personal as well as a professional level. Having studied it for many years for the purposes of benchmarking our company’s Lean/CI system, I’ve long suspected Toyota had soul as well as smarts and heart. Your post confirms my suspiscion! Thanks for taking the time to delve into the translation. I look forward to checking out some of your other posts.

  12. Kurt Neubek

    February 14, 2022 - 9:07 pm

    Jon, this post is still being read and the link shared on LinkedIn in 2022. Thank you!

    • Jon Miller

      February 14, 2022 - 10:43 pm

      Love to hear it. Thanks Kurt!

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