problem solving people

The Importance of Respect for People in Problem-Solving

By Kevin Meyer Updated on April 12th, 2018

Respect for people is one of the two core pillars of lean, if not the most important. We talk and write about it a lot, and it is a significant component of Gemba Academy’s online lean training programs.

When respect for people is combined with the other pillar, continuous improvement, dramatic organizational transformation is possible to drive customer value.  Not understanding and working hard on respect for people while focusing purely on lean tools is probably the main reason lean efforts fail.  When lean is mashed into “lean six sigma,” respect for people is generally left out, hence one reason we hesitate to embrace LSS.

Respect for people is not simply treating people in your organization in a positive manner.  It is challenging them to grow, providing them the tools, training, and experiences to do so, and creating an environment where mistakes and failures are allowed and even encouraged.  Respect extends beyond the immediate organization to suppliers, customers, and the community as a whole.

The value of respect is especially important in kaizen, continuous improvement, and the problem-solving that supports those activities.  You want to be able to effectively harness the creativity, experience, and knowledge of everyone on a team in order to analyze the problem and identify and implement the best solutions.

Last week Alison Reynolds and David Lewis published an article in Harvard Business Review titled The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams.  What are those two traits?  Cognitive diversity and psychological safety.

Teams with a high level of cognitive diversity have a blend of different problem-solving behaviors, like collaboration, identifying problems, applying information, maintaining discipline, breaking rules, and inventing new approaches. These techniques combined were more effective than in groups where there were too many rule-breakers, or too many discipline-maintainers, for example.

But cognitive diversity is not enough.  After finding teams that were diverse yet produced suboptimal results, the authors dug deeper and looked at the importance of psychological safety.

The groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution. The environment they created through their interaction was one of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.

Reynolds and Lewis go on, based on data from 150 executives from around the world, to analyze behaviors in each of the four quadrants of a matrix of low-high cognitive diversity and psychological safety.  The Generative quadrant, with both high diversity and safety, is characterized by being curious, encouraging, experimental, forceful, inquiring, and nurturing.

We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. It is not just the presence of the positive behaviors in the Generative quadrant that count, it is the corresponding absence of the negative behaviors.

A psychologically safe environment ignites cognitive diversity and puts different minds to work on the bumpy and difficult journey of strategy execution.

Embracing a diverse set of problem-solving behaviors while providing an environment where they can be safely expressed and explored is respect for people.  It is intentionally working to optimize their potential, which leads to positive transformation, improvement, and value for the customer.

  1. Dave George

    April 13, 2018 - 8:13 am

    I love this way you’ve explained the pillars of Lean in terms of this problem solving article. Spot on from my standpoint. As I think about it further, of the two traits, I feel psychological safety is the one leaders should think about first. I think this is a trait they have almost complete control of creating which almost enables the other trait (cognitive diversity) to come out.

    For instance, there may be very creative people in a room (one of the cognitive diverse brains you want) but they will not share these ideas until they feel psychologically safe. I have witnessed this many times over – genius thoughts from a person who most people thought were disengaged. People in the room go “Whoa, where did that come from?” In my opinion, it was always there and they finally felt psychological safety and shared it. Thank you again for the article.

    Dave George

  2. Theresa Heitman

    April 13, 2018 - 8:45 am

    Great article and couldn’t agree with you more! I’ll be referencing your article in a LSS Green Belt class I am teaching in a few weeks!

  3. Prabhu

    September 7, 2020 - 9:36 am

    Want to know more about “Lean Behaviours”
    Could you help me?

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.