Lean = Kaizen + Respect

I recently read the book Lead with Respect, a novel on Lean Practice by Michael Balle and Freddy Balle.

What is emphasised throughout the book is how respect for people is an important factor for creating a continuous learning or a continuous improvement culture.

Respecting people feels very simple, just respect people right? What is the big deal about it? The difference is in the definition of respect.

Most of us consider respect as:

  • Being fair
  • Held people accountable
  • Giving clear goals

It’s easier to give people recommendations/suggestions or share opinions, but harder to bring in improvements in a continuous manner. Instead, what is recommended is challenging people while watching them working, which is referred as Genchi Genbutsu in Lean. In such an environment, everyone in the organization will be continually learning and improving.

This is how the managers in Toyota are different. They don’t sit in a cabin and give instructions, instead they are there with the people in the workplace and coaching is done while they are doing their work. This gives the manager the opportunity to really see exactly what is happening, empathize more, an opportunity to “challenge” by asking the right questions.

So what is the relevance of “respect” in this context. By questioning and challenging while at the workplace, managers help the employees to refrain from the problem and zoom out. The questions should be focused on the problem [“why”] not on the person [“who”]. This helps to get to the root of the problem at hand and bring in improvements to mitigate the same.

The challenge for a manager is to switch from an authority mode to a coaching mode and also asking the right questions instead of jumping to the solutions.

I’ve known about Kaizen and Respect for People, but never realised these as the two pillars of lean thinking. I had learned early on in my career about the issues with management through command and control, especially by watching others’ doing it. But sticking to asking the right question and being a good listener is something am still learning. It seems easier to give a lot of solutions/suggestions/recommendations, but doesn’t add any significant value to resolve the problem at hand.

Toyota Kata is a highly recommended approach of bringing in the Continuous Improvement process. Recommend you to read the same especially if you are a manager/lead. Wondering how Toyota Kata can be implemented in the context of software development, watch these presentations/talks regarding the same.