Process, Result and Value for the Community

Last week I had the opportunity to speak in front of group of people learning and leading continuous improvement paired with respect for humanity, at the Lean HR Summit. One of myths of Lean that I attempted to bust was that the prime directive of Lean is to focus on the customer. The gist of my point is that the customer is just one of the stakeholders, the immediate payer and recipient of some value, but not the only or absolute focus of a truly Lean enterprise. Other presenters made similar points, and at least one directly disagreed and put customer first, as does most mainstream Lean.

One of the excellent presenters during the summit was Mike Hoseus of the Center for Quality People and Organizations, Inc., co-author of Toyota Culture and former Toyota manager. In discussing “lean people development” Mike drew on many great personal stories and pulled the audience into thoughtful discussions. One of the concepts that was used several times during the summit was the image above of interlocking circles showing how Toyota builds mutual trust by aligning actions to achieve company goals with actions to achieve the goals of individual team members.

We don’t see this image often enough in speeches, presentations and books about lean, probably because many organizations who practice Lean are not yet deliberately practicing this alignment of individual and group goals. It is not an easy thing to do, especially for very large organizations whose leaders enjoy outsize benefits from short-term improvements in shareholder value, often placed at odds with long-term development of people. Lean enterprises must have a built-in element of long-term purpose, the removal of those elements that undermine sustainability, and the determination to constantly broaden the definition of “customer” to include the the customers’ customers, future generations of people who will thank the organization for being moral and creating value for the wider society.

With that in mind, the lean leader is encouraged to adapt the Toyota circles of mutual trust to reach beyond the company but as many other key stakeholders as one can honestly say that we care about (i.e. we are willing to do something about). Corporate social responsibility, environmental stewardship and sustainable supply chains are becoming increasingly part of corporate lingo, which is encouraging. The understanding of Lean, which is increasingly being Balkanized these days, must embrace the widest definitions of customer and value possible, or risk becoming a historical footnote as a narrowly-optimized tool set.

Another interesting and related insight from the Lean HR Summit was an answer from former Toyota VP of HR Pete Gritton that in his opinion learning to get better at employee work-life balance was the next big HR challenge at Toyota. This highlights the fact that creating value for the community, which includes not only customers but also employees and their families, is being recognized as important by the world’s most successful automobile company.

He could have been talking about what happens to organizations when they employ processes to align the goals of group with the goals of the individual, when Albert Einstein said:

One should guard against preaching to young people success in the customary form as the main aim in life. The most important motive for work in school and in life is pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community.

The more narrowly we define success, the more short-term our thinking becomes, the more we sub-optimize our systems and set into motion the effects of externalized costs which we or our descendants will pay down the road.

Whether he was speaking as a business magnate, entrepreneur, inventor or simply a family man, Henry Ford said it more succinctly:

To do more for the world than the world does for you – that is success.

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