Misusing the “Respect for People” Principle


Since the grand awakening of the Lean community to the “Respect for People” principle in 2007, and especially post-2014, it has been interesting to see how it has been both used and misused. When used correctly, in its proper context — the management of business enterprise, in the workplace — wonderful things happen. With these “managerial values” for the company’s “leadership team” (TTW 2001, F. Cho, p. 1), people become liberated from the shackles of drudgery and energized to think on-the-job. But what about when the “Respect for People” principle is put into other contexts. Does it still have the intended favorable effect?

One of the things that Lean people do a lot of is talk to one another to make sense of how various principles and practices are applied or should be applied. These great discussions occur inside organizations and help people understand and develop their skills and capabilities. These great discussions also occur outside of organizational settings such as in e-mail correspondences, comments on social media, article posts, direct messaging, Zoom, and so on. It is in these setting that the discourse can become very animated and include sharp exchanges. When that happens, someone will often point out, sometimes vigorously, nonconformance to the “Respect for People” principle. In this way, one’s understanding of the “Respect for People” principle, whatever it may be, bleeds into other domains for which it was not meant.

While some of these exchanges may have the intent to help people understand and develop their skills and capabilities, the context is not one in which the “Respect for People” principle applies. In most cases, someone is being called out simply for not being nice. This introduces a straw man argument (not being nice) to deflect the argument at hand and reduce frustration with the direction of the argument or an unwillingness to concede the facts. So, as with just about all other aspects of Lean, the “Respect for People” principle can be used in unusual ways. For example, it is used singly or in combination to:

  • Berate or silence critics
  • Bunt disagreement
  • Deflect or ignore the facts
  • Call out rough or bad behavior
  • Justify or hide behind bad behaviors
  • Claim one’s moral (or other) superiority
  • Assert the correctness of one’s argument
  • Garner affection and “likes” from others

These are political uses of the “Respect for People” principle, designed for political ends — to divide people who have broadly shared interests into more narrow separate camps. That is not the purpose of the “Respect for People” principle and invoking it out of context and for fetid political purposes dilutes both its meaning and its effectiveness when used in its proper workplace context. Outside the workplace — absent hierarchical relationships and remuneration — one can have an opinion, rightly or wrongly, that discourse on a subject was or was not respectful. But it is a different matter, incorrectly so, to invoke the “Respect for People” principle. Outside the workplace, normal rules apply, not Lean principles.

Incorrect use of the “Respect for People” can only retard the advancement of Lean management. That is important because Lean faces an uncertain future given the unrelenting advance of classical management and as it works to assure new technologies conform to its archaic precepts.

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