Respect for Soft Skills

By Jon Miller Updated on June 12th, 2021

In lean circles we talk a lot about respect for people. Along with continuous improvement, it’s one of two core elements of the Toyota Way brand of lean thinking. In contrast to the tools and techniques of continuous improvement, the practical methods of respect for people can be nebulous.

Unlike machines or materials, each person is different. The nature of interpersonal respect is dynamic, changing as individuals are added or removed from the interaction. With regards to continuous improvement, machines and materials behave largely in predictable and consistent ways across cultures and contexts. With regards to respect for people, humans do not. Just as improving processes require technical, or hard skills, maintaining good human relationships relies on our ability to exercise soft skills.

What Are Soft Skills?

Soft skills are sometimes called people skills. They are a mix of social skills, communication skills,  attitudes, mindsets, emotional intelligence, character traits, and so forth as required to do a job or get along with others in society. At first these two types of skills were intended to contrast working with things that were physically hard like a machine or material and anything else that was not, or was soft to the touch.

The notion of soft skills originated in the US Military through research conducted between 1968 and 1972. They realized that the success of soldiers in the field relied on how they were led. While the military excelled at training troops on the use machines and equipment to do their job, they weren’t training soldiers how to lead.

So they went about creating a method to capture how this knowledge was being acquired. Through research this evolved into three questions for judging whether a skill was hard or soft.

1. How much interaction is there with a machine?

2. How specific is the behavior performed?

3. What is the type of on-the-job situation?

The military invested in learning what these soft skills were, how to develop them, and how to measure their troops’ performance.

What We Don’t Know About the Job

On the one hand, this division between soft and hard seems straightforward. Hard skills are for learning how to work with machines and materials, soft skills are useful for learning how to work with methods and with people. However, a particular section from a 1972 CONARC Soft Skills Conference report reveals another dimension:

“In other words, those job junctions about which we know a good deal are hard skills and those about which we know very little are soft skills.”

Machines are physically hard. Perhaps more important, they tend to be more predictable, reliable and more knowable than humans in many situations. This may be a better criteria. We may know relatively little about certain “hard” or machine skill situations while we may know a lot about some “soft” or human interactions.

We can generalize the insight above further by modifying the three criteria to ask

1. How reliable or predictable is the process?
2. What degree of specificity of inputs does the process require?
3. How predictable is the situation or setting?

Using these criteria, as we get better at quantifying and replicating the effects of practicing a skill, there is a transition from soft to hard. When we know enough about how to work with people it can be measurable and predictable. In other words, there is some threshold beyond which a well-understood soft skill becomes a hard skill.

How to Practice Soft Skills

As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The higher an organization’s ambition, and the further they climb on that journey, the more their success depends on mutual trust and respect between people. When organizations invest in defining and developing effective leadership skills, they can go farther together.

For some, soft skills and demonstrating respectful behavior come easily. It may be how they were raised, or how they are natured. However for many, and in the context of diverse and high-stakes work environments, respect for people is a deliberately developed set of skills. There are some proven practice patterns for soft skills. The JR or Job Relations routines of TWI is one. We need more.

There are many good teaching materials for hard skills. Too often the development of soft skills is left to trial and error, passed on as tribal knowledge. The challenge is to evaluate what we know about our processes, grasp what they require to function well in our context, quantify this as best as we can, classify the “hard” and “soft” skills, and build simple practice routines.

  1. Qaiser Iqbal

    July 16, 2021 - 10:34 am

    How the soft skills role is significant in business development and quality improvement?
    Can we apply in Customer Relations Management?

  2. Pete

    July 17, 2021 - 8:30 am

    Great article about hard and soft skills, with examples! This is the first time I have heard the idea/concept that a soft skill could move to a hard skill. Thank you.

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