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Lean on Me: A Culture of Respect in the Workplace

Lean isn’t just about process improvements and efficiency. It also requires cultivating a culture of respect. In this third of a 3-part series on understanding the people side of lean we explore how focusing on staff can help overcome the common obstacles to lean implementation. See also, part 1 and part 2.

Workplace culture is about shared values. It shows up in what people do and how they treat one another, and in the ways that decisions are made and communicated. Organizational theorist Edgar Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions” that can be recognized by the visual artifacts in the workplace along with verbally espoused beliefs, values, and basic underlying assumptions.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, gives us a three-part recipe for changing habits: cue, routine, and reward. Let’s imagine how this looks in a lean workplace—that is, a workplace committed to both continuous process improvement and respect for people:

  • The “cue” is the established work standard. In the workplace this means management and employees have collaborated to define quality standards and routines so that everyone knows what “good work” means for every task. They have a shared understanding of how those tasks link together into efficient processes that contribute to the flow of valuable, meaningful results.
  • The cue becomes “routine” when team members participate in a daily practice of huddling together for 15 minutes to take a good look at visual boards depicting current data about their team’s work. Visual cues should be posted where every team member can see them, not buried in some report just for executives, so everyone can instantly see how the organization is progressing (or not) toward their goals every day (not once a year during a painful performance review). Team members can easily spot the deviations from the cues, and they help each other when problems emerge, before those problems spiral into disasters.
  • The “reward” is that teams can actually see that their real, daily work contributes to the team goals, and how their team contributes to the organization’s purpose. People want to know their efforts matter, that they are making a difference. Visual feedback empowers people to see needed corrections in real time, solve problems, and see the resulting improvements for themselves. You create a powerful and self-reinforcing virtuous cycle that is the polar opposite of the vicious cycle that leads to cynicism and blame.

Why do habits matter? Because your workplace culture is influenced most powerfully by two things: habits and stories. In the healthy workplace described above, wasteful workplace conflicts and confusion are minimized, so that managers can devote their energy to coaching and providing feedback in real time (rather than once a year), and engaging each other in solving problems that cut across organizational silos. Leaders show respect – and thereby earn respect – by the way they pay attention to the real work, listening to people, eliminating confusion and giving everyone a clear sense of purpose. Great leaders use what they know about how the people and teams are really doing on a daily basis to communicate credible and inspiring new stories, sustaining and renewing commitment to the organizations purpose, and fostering the kind of workplace culture that attracts and retains the best employees.

Look around your workplace, and listen to what people are saying. Can they clearly express what’s most important? Do they fundamentally trust their leaders and each other? Do they believe they are empowered and capable of solving problems? Do they find meaning and satisfaction in their work every day?

If not, why not take a step toward creating a stronger, healthier, more vibrant workplace culture?

Even if you are in a fairly healthy team but feel you could be even better, check out local author Bob Brown’s book The People Side of Lean for a simple formula with four components:

  • A compelling – not trivial – task.
  • A sense of belonging that comes from membership in a team.
  • Intrinsic motivation. You can lay out the benefits, but people must come to their own sense of “what’s in it for me?”
  • A genuine opportunity to exercise and influence decision-making.

Building confidence in problem-solving and trust among co-workers takes time and effort, but the payoffs are significant. As teams and organizations move toward creating more cohesion and improved performance, the individuals on those teams also become healthier, happier and more productive. And that means that when they leave the workplace, they bring that happiness and confidence into their homes, families, and communities.

Remember that building just one pillar is never enough. Leaders who believe in and practice continuous process improvement must also actively believe in, and practice, respect for people. When people have a say, when they believe their ideas matter, when they can see the value of their contributions—then they feel respected. Respect is a fundamental human need. Where human beings are united by a common purpose and mutual respect, a team can achieve truly great results. Lean calls upon all of us—and our leaders most of all—to practice humility, perseverance, and compassion.

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About Larisa Benson

Larisa Benson writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Larisa Benson is a teacher of management disciplines, a seeker of new ideas and a fan of people who choose to give their energy and talent in service to community. She is a principal consultant with The Athena Group and a faculty member at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.