4 myths about the principle of “Respect for People”

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 7, 2011 · 13 comments

The principle of Respect for People has received greater attention in the lean community over the past several years. Books, blogs, and speeches have all given attention to its importance. Both companies and customers are made up of people, and the best profits and processes in the world are not worth it if they lay waste to people in their path.

Bob Emiliani, author of Real Lean: Understanding the Lean Management System (Volume 1), added this contribution to the article:

The Respect for People principle has been an integral part of progressive management for over 100 years. Each of the pioneers realized, through trial-and-error, that this principle must be put into practice if one hopes to get material and information to flow. Without the Respect for People principle, the best one can hope to achieve is a more efficient batch-and queue processing. This principle is like an iceberg in that the visible part above the waterline comprises only a small part of the principle, and is what some managers recognize. The larger part lies below the waterline, and is therefore much more challenging for managers to grasp. Unfortunately, it has been rare to see managers who understand and practice the Respect for People principle beyond its surface-level meaning. That, plus not understanding what flow is, helps explain why Fake Lean has been so prevalent.

But respect for people means different things to different people. To some it means avoiding layoffs at all costs. To others it means giving them freedom to do whatever they want, or assume that they are right. To others it means trust. In all, I see the principle of respect for people thrown about sometimes casually, and sometimes in direct conflict of what I believe the principle is truly about.

1. Avoid conflicts

Conflict is bad. Conflict puts people on the offensive. Conflict makes people uncomfortable. Therefore we should avoid conflict.

But this is the opposite of respect for people. Conflict leads to resolution. Conflict leads to new understanding. Conflict, when managed properly, brings people together. Showing a lack of respect for people means that we don’t trust them to be able to handle conflict. We don’t trust them to be able to have adult conversations. We don’t demonstrate the respect of people by absorbing some of that discomfort that having conversations about conflict requires.

2. Be nice (above everything else)

Nice is good. Please do not interpret this to advocate being mean. But nice is about civility and politeness. I actually believe it has little to do with respect.

But the problem comes when nice is considered an essential, non-negotiable behavior, above all other behaviors. This seems to happen most often in companies where “nice” is part of the company’s mission to its customers. What happens in organizations such as these is that people are nice, but not honest; nice but not clear; nice but not opinionated; nice but not exposing problems. In fact, that is probably the worst form of nice: not surfacing a problem that exists out of niceness.

This is a similar myth to “avoid conflicts” but is different in its intention. The objective of the person who is getting respect wrong has a different motivation.

Nice is good, but respect for people is not about being nice all the time.

3. Give positive reinforcement but not corrective feedback

Again, just like nice is good, positive reinforcement is both good and effective. But the confusion is when we consider all forms of feedback must be positive feedback. We lose the valuable and effective form of corrective feedback. Both are necessary to lead, and especially to lead a change in the organization.

Corrective feedback, especially when done well and immediately, is a valuable form of learning and improvement. At a personal level (although not the only level at which this applies), positive reinforcement is about getting better at what you’re already doing well, which is worthwhile. But corrective feedback is about fixing the things that are holding you back from your potential. One without the other is simply far too limiting.

I see this being pervasive in today’s school system. We don’t want to give corrective feedback because it might dampen their spirit and isn’t “nice.” But what we are creating is a whole generation of kids that when they fail at something in the real world, they are not prepared to handle and process that feedback, which is now crushing.

If you are in the presence of an outright wrong behavior and do nothing, this is a form of endorsing that behavior. This is true culturally, and has been the case lately, also true legally. Not correcting something you see and know to be wrong makes you complicit.

4. Give people autonomy, but not accountability

Empowerment is great. Empowerment should increase with a lean transformation. But empowerment is the by-product of giving people the processes, skills, tools, and principles that allow people to make decisions in a way that is consistent with the organizational direction. It is defined and guided empowerment, not autonomy.

And it certainly isn’t abdication. In the name of respect for people, organizations want to push every decision down to the front line. This is the right direction for some decisions, but not all. Everyone is closest to some problem or process, and they are the right people to be managing and improving that process. The front-line is not in the best position to be making all of the decisions.

And it certainly doesn’t mean not holding people accountable. Yes, maintaining both accountability and empowerment is delicate. Either one applied too far with harm the other. But accountability is only dangerous when you don’t hold people accountable in a consistent manner, or if you hold them accountable for arbitrary items. Once a team has had a chance to give input, and a process is defined, leaders must hold people accountable. Not doing so creates waste. And worse, it demonstrates a lack of respect for people. Why? Because the message is “thanks for all your hard work in designing the process, but your work wasn’t important enough for me to do my part in sustaining those decisions.”

Brad Power, who works with the Lean Enterprise Institute and blogs at Harvard Business Review, added this in response to the list:

Show respect by joint problem solving. This is related to going to see, a.k.a. gemba walks. To sustain Lean transformations, you want executives to regularly go see, ask why, and show respect. A great way to show respect is for the senior person to engage in problem solving with the manager or front line worker who raises a problem. The front line worker brings local knowledge, the senior leader brings global knowledge.

I agree with Brad’s recommendation around joint problem solving. A form of this was described in Problems across boundaries require a different approach.

Respect for people sounds great. It sounds simple. Yet it is complicated and nuanced in its application. Getting respect for people wrong can be one of the more damaging situations for a lean journey, because once people declare something as done out of respect for people, it is not a simple thing to challenge it.


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