Lean Thinking – The Power of People

Power of People

This graphic demonstrating Two Pillars of the Toyota Way emphasizes the importance of people in Lean Thinking initiatives.  It is easy to become focused on the pillar of continuous process improvement and ignore the people element.  In my consulting practice I have found that the best ideas often come from those employees intimately involved in the process – the subject matter experts.  They are the ones that know what works, what doesn’t work, and when approached with a collaborative attitude will often share ideas they have for improving the process, which assures they are vested in the improvement initiative when it is time for implementation. 

 What does it mean to show “respect for people” and how do we tap into the power of people?  James Womack1 reviewed the approach used by top managers at Toyota summarized as follows:

 Step 1: Ask what the problem is the way things are currently being done, and then challenge the answers to find the real problem.

 Step 2: Ask what is causing the problem identified in Step 1 to find its root causes.

 Step 3: Ask what should be done, and why their proposed solution is the best (of alternatives)

 Step 4: Ask how managers and employees will know when the problem has been solved (relevant Key Performance Indicators).

 Step 5: Involve employees in implementation of the agreed solution

 What is the difference in respect shown based on these problem solving steps as opposed to giving the employees control, empowering and trusting them to solve problems on their own, and congratulating them on the results?  The referenced article summarizes the value of this approach as follows:

…this problem-solving process is actually the highest form of respect. The manager is saying to the employees that the manager can’t solve the problem alone, because the manager isn’t close enough to the problem to know the facts. He or she truly respects the employees’ knowledge and their dedication to finding the best answer. But the employees can’t solve the problem alone, either, because they are often too close to the problem to see its context and they may refrain from asking tough questions about their own work. Only by showing mutual respect – each for the other and for each other’s role – is it possible to solve problems, make work more satisfying, and move organizational performance to an ever higher level.  (para. 9)

A collaborative approach with those directly involved in processes under review is the best way to find, and implement changes to improve organizational performance.


 1Womack, J.. The Toyota Concept of ‘Respect for People’. Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI), Cambridge, MA.Retrieved from:  http://www.reliableplant.com/Read/9818/toyota