First, respect for people means that all stakeholders deserve respect. A business does not prosper long-term focusing only on a few of them while ignoring others. Shareholders demand returns on their investment. Customers and suppliers continue to do business only when the value they receive is fair or better. Employees leave when the organization does not invest in the well-being and development of people. The wider community in which the business exists also cannot be ignored. That’s a lot of people to respect.
Second, and perhaps the most popular interpretation of respect for people is that lean requires building a safe, joyful, productive and rewarding workplace. This is not done for or to people by management. It is accomplished together through experiments that engage people in autonomous and team problem solving. The improvement results from experiments, problem solving and bottom-up improvement idea generation are a happy byproduct, and not only a justification for, the main aim of human development. Even skeptical leaders soon catch on that they had better respect people because respected people do better.
The third way of understanding respect for people is to recognize that we are misinterpreting this phrase. The original Toyota Way concept is respect for ningensei (人間性）which is “humanity” or “human nature”. The word is not “people” but rather the inborn nature of people. It describes what makes us human. It includes the sum of our moral and practical capabilities, as well as the behaviors that result from them. In practice, the Toyota Way emphasis of respect for humanity is on development of trust, mutual responsibility, teamwork, fulfillment and job satisfaction, as well as each individual’s creativity and capability. There is much more to human nature than this. But from a labor management point of view, this is a great start.
In my experience, when offered the choice between the accepted “respect for people” and alternatives “respect for humanity” or “respect for human nature”, humans mostly choose the former. The idea of respect for people is much more concrete. It is pleasing to our ego as persons. Respect for people sells better when talking to people about lean. The concept of human nature is large, abstract and contains a mix of good and bad aspects. It is also part of human nature to prefer simplicity over nuance, even at the cost of fidelity.
Why does it matter whether we stay with “respect for people” or recognize the original meaning? The difference is between a thing and the nature of a thing. Let’s consider equipment we use to do our work, such as a car, a laptop or an MRI machine. We follow instructions for their safe operation. We use them within the recommended environmental conditions. We clean and maintain them. We improve them with physical or software upgrades. We don’t mistreat them because we rely on them to do their job. This would be “respect for machines”. When we study the nature of machines, we understand the mechanisms behind how they work, how they break down. We learn what factors in the environments cause deterioration of performance. We learn how to recognize early signs of wear and tear. Can we get the most out of machines by respecting them, i.e. following well-established guidelines? Or can we get more out of them by striving to understand the nature of what makes them go and constantly striving to improve them?
Respect for people is great. Don’t stop doing it. There are other lean concepts with questionable names. So long as we do the right thing, that shouldn’t matter. Still, the idea of respect for human nature deserves respect.