Womack on Respect for People


Jim Womack's E-letters – Respect for People

Jim Womack's most recent e-letter is one of the best I've read in quite a while. I think he really nails it, the compare and contrast of a Lean notion of “respect for people” and what traditional organizations mean when they say they respect people. Somewhat paraphrasing Jim:

Traditional Organizations:

  • Set individual goals (top down), but give people wide latitude in how the work is done
  • They “trust” their people to get their work done and solve problems on their own
  • Managers and experts help people work around problems
  • Play cheerleader and say “great job!”

Lean Organizations:

  • Highly specify how the work is done, but give employees latitude to improve things
  • Managers and supervisors get directly involved with their employees in problem solving
  • Managers ask the employees how root causes can be fixed
  • They challenge employees in their thinking, driving toward better solutions in a collaborative way

For anyone who thought “respect for people” meant “being nice all the time,” I hope Jim's letter helps clarify the true difference. The Lean organization had far less turnover and far better productivity than Jim's “non Lean” example. Better process…. better results!

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I couldn’t agree with you more: as I read his letter, I thought that it was one of the best I’ve read.

    What’s interesting to me is that there’s standard work in making the company a great environment. Rather than deploying vague notions of “respect” or “giving employees latitude,” Toyota has a clearly defined procedure for showing respect — and not incidentally, making better products.

  2. Agree it was good.

    But man he needs to hire a web guy or something since the formatting of the letter was terrible (one long paragraph).

    Maybe it was a Lotus Notes thing… but sure hard on the eyes.

  3. I agree, the formatting was horrible in Outlook. I almost didn’t read it, which would have been a shame. Content is king, but making stuff readable helps avoid “muda” for the readers, right Jim? Where is the “lean solution” in how the email is formatted? “Don’t waste my time” Jim, as you would say!

    But I loved the message. Great job, Jim. If only the GE type companies would really understand stuff like that, what lean is really all about.

  4. Funny, we use Lotus Notes here and it came out great. Guess I was lucky that mine was easy to read!

    In addition, not only is Jim’s letter fantastic for what it says, but also for how he says it. So many Lean books these days talk of theory and principle. His note gives hard-core example.

    I’m reading Shingo’s “Kaizen and the Art of Creative Thinking” currently. He does a fantastic job of simplifying the message and providing “bread and butter” examples. I even used one of his examples this morning when we had an similar incident in our production control area.

    In a recent discussion with Norman Bodek, I mentioned that so many Lean books just say the same thing. These two latest examples are exactly what I’ve been looking for – simple messages and clear directions (examples) that I can share with all levels…sounds like Rules in Use!

  5. I had a conversation with Norman Bodek a couple of years ago about the cultural perceptions of “respect.” I asked how to reconcile the brutal way the Japanese senseis sometimes counseled people with the ideal of respect. We sort of settled on our cultural idea of respect is more like being nice, considering the feelings of other people, giving them the benefit of the doubt and so on. People like Shingo weren’t always nice, but they believed that anyone could learn how to solve problems. Anyone had that capability. We’re more likely to show “respect” by rejecting an idea or a person nicely, as we decide that this is just a stupid person that we shouldn’t listen to again. That’s the trouble with language in translation. One word requires pages and pages of discussion about all the aspects of its meaning.


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