Lean management aims to make work easier, safer, better, faster and cheaper. The first two centuries of continuous improvement focused on invention, tinkering, and innovation in machinery and materials. With the growth of the service sectors of the economy, the focus of continuous improvement has expanded to the invention of new methods and tools for information processing and knowledge creation. The most direct path to continuous improvement is to examine a process and ask, “How can we do it easier, safer, better or faster?” The cheaper usually follows.
Lean management also aims to interweave the improving of processes with fostering a workplace that is more human. This is referred to as demonstrating respect for people, or emphasizing a respect for humanity in our interactions, policies, processes and systems. The question we ask to gain insights on how to do this are less straightforward. We are not dealing with machines, information or things. We are dealing with people. Intelligent, programmable, error-prone, self-driving, non-standardized, astonishing and frustrating biological entities. They don’t come with operating manuals or manufacturer’s specifications.
Without respecting the humanity of the individual people in the workplace, it is very difficult to achieve and sustain objectives through continuous improvement. People may be too bored and disengaged to recognize that things could be better. They may see through management’s insincere or tepid commitment to change. Or they may sense that continuous improvement will remove slack without making their work easier. People keep their head down and mouth shut when that appears to be in their best interest. Without the motivation, brains and hands of these people, continuous improvement of a management system is impossible.
If the continuous improvement question is, “How can we do it easier, safer, better or faster?” what is the equivalent question to guide us toward respect for humanity? I’m not sure we can express it in just one question. People are different. What they want out of work is different, and changes at different points in their lives and careers. But here are some possible starting points
How often does the work feel monotonous or boring?
How often do you do the same work or repetitive tasks all day?
How often do you have opportunities to learn new jobs, tasks and skills?
How much trust and responsibility are you given to do your job?
When is the last time you found a way to make your job safer, easier or better?
When is the last time you learned new skills or methods to make your job safer, easier or better?
How clearly do the two management levels above you explain how your work contributes to the company?
These may seem like leading questions. Clearly there are preferred, or even correct answers to these questions. We are not exploring unknown territory. It’s no mystery what motivates, engages and gets the best out of people. The mystery is why more leaders don’t structure their organizations based on this. No doubt there is more to making a workplace respectful to humans than ensuring people can do interesting work, have an understanding of its purpose, enjoy opportunities to learn new things, and feel a degree of control over their own destiny. But it’s a start.
Some people may be content to punch in and punch out, bringing nothing more to the job than the paid hours of mental or physical labor, and asking for nothing more than wages. “What if people don’t want to engage in continuous improvement?” is another important respect for humanity question. Respect for humanity does not mean tailoring the workplace to the whims of every individual; it does mean recognizing that there are both good and bad aspects to human nature and putting systems in place to minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths.