Lean: Letting our human characteristics flourish…


Yesterday, I was in the first day of two for John Shook's “Managing to Learn” class about A3 management here at the Lean Enterprise Institute. The class is based on the book of the same name.

In this course, I had the chance to pause and revisit parts of Shook's book. One quote from Toyota chairman Fujio Cho (pictured at left) stood out at me, especially in response to those who think “lean,” based on the Toyota Production System, is a bunch of dehumanizing tools…

Cho was quoted as saying, as translated by John Shook:

“We want to not only show respect to our people, the same way we want to show respect to everyone we meet in life, we also want to respect their humanity, what it is that makes us human, which is our ability to think and feel – we have to respect that humanity in the way we design the work, so that the work enables their very human characteristics to flourish.”

I've normally heard Toyota's philosophy described as the phrase “respect for people,” one of their two “equally important” pillars (along with continuous improvement). The original name, however, of the Toyota Production was simply the “Respect for Humanity” system. Peter Abilla (of the Shmula blog – now creator of a site that can help you find a math tutor and more) often reminds us that, during his time at Toyota, the phrase “respect for humanity” was used, not “respect for people.”

I think I'm starting to see the distinction in language. Respect for people means, in the lean sense, to respect each individual by challenging them to fulfill their potential. Respect for humanity means that we respect the inherent human nature in all people – people's need to think and be creative and to participate in the workplace, not just being robots who follow a standard process without thinking.

As I thought about that, respecting people's inherent human nature, I thought that the respect must include a respect for our inherent human fallibility. The patient safety movement makes this same point – since we're human and we're fallible, we can't tolerate the design of systems that require us to never forget anything or never make mistakes.

On the next page, Managing to Learn explained that the foundation for this respect mindset is a “no-blame” culture, where people aren't afraid to raise problems for fear of punishment or ridicule.There's a good reason John Toussaint and ThedaCare worked to create a no-blame culture so that they could work together to reduce medical errors rather than have people cover them up out of fear.

A finer point is that this “no-blame culture” does not mean, as MTL says, “a culture of accepting problems that repeat without investigation, nor one that would tolerate excuses.” Jamie Flinchbaugh had a post recently that described this well, along with some good reader comments. Eric Ries, of the “Lean Startups” approach, also emphasized how important it is to not blame software developers for a problem, as that interferes with improvement.

“Respect for people” sounds simple and gets so easily misinterpreted. It doesn't mean being soft or nice or easy on people. It means helping them be as successful as they can be.

To make the FTC happy, and because it's the right thing to do, I disclose my employment relationship with LEI, producer of the workshop and publisher of the book.

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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. We can indeed say that progress has finally been made when people become aware of and begin to practice the “Respect for People” principle in Lean management. However, most people comprehend the “Respect for People” too narrowly as the employer-associate dyad. The principle includes all five key stakeholders: employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities. That creates a much different challenge in the practice of Lean management compared to only the employer-associate dyad. We clearly have much more work to do to teach this principle to many more people faster, especially executives, as we are way behind. We must also show the way on how the “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” principles are inter-related.

  2. Great stuff, Mark. When I teach, one question that is raised frequently is the one about respect for people. We all think we have it, or we do it, but it’s difficult to describe the difference between the typical “people are our most important asset” and the Toyota approach. I think the ideas and wording in your post hit the mark (no pun intended) very well.

  3. Up to now I haven’t read John’s book, but this post got me off the dime and I’ve gone through our hospital’s library to order it. Thanks, Mark.

  4. A subtle but very important distinction. New learning for me that I can put into use when discussing the value of engaging everyone in continuous improvement. Thanks.
    I also remember reading in one of your past blogs that creative cooking is a passion of yours. Mine also. It would be interesting to poll a group of lean thinkers to assess how many of them are right brain creative types. I hope to meet you some day and talk cooking!

  5. Thank you for this post. Tomorrow I am scheduled to train new “Group Leaders” in the Lean principles. One item I am stressing is how important leadership is to our company being able to achieve and sustain a Lean culture. Although in my class I do talk about people not being robots and “producing, i.e. developing, our people before we produce product, I do not mention the “Respect for People” principle as such. I am grateful for this reminder and will add it to my presentation and class. This is the core to what I am trying to get across to our management in implementing Lean principles.

  6. Mark,
    Great lesson!
    I will steal without regret and use frequently – as you would want!
    Thanks for the wisdom on “respect for humanity”.
    Language is such an important part of the thinking change process and this is a very useful distinction for thinking.

  7. “‘Respect for people’ sounds simple and gets so easily misinterpreted. It doesn’t mean being soft or nice or easy on people. It means helping them be as successful as they can be.”

    Regarding this observation and echoing the sentiments of previous comments, I think of Kant’s argument for capital punishment (which before I go any further, I must state that I am very much against). His point is that to not hold people accountable is to dehumanize them, to reduce them to animals without thought or will. That which distinguishes all of us from beasts is the profound ability to assimilate our environment and to adapt to it or adapt it to ourselves. Being polite and understanding is humane, but patronizing and expecting very little of people is inhumane. And in the end everyone looses.

    How strange it is that in late advanced civilization we have to go out and spread the gospel of treating humans as humans, and not as animals or robots or “resources.” Perhaps it is because the architects of the industrial revolution consciously tried to turn people into machines (quotes available). Perhaps it is because so many of us have developed an addiction to the creaturely comforts offered in a consumerist society, expecting little of ourselves.

    Still, those with which we work are partners, equals and potentially freinds. Their utterly unique perspective is irreplacable. “Humanity” can be mistaken for some abstract concept “out there.” But we have the option of looking at it as that which allows concrete human beings in the here-and-now to connect. Though we are, of course, concerned with solving problems, this goes well beyond any practical use of a “resource.” This, I believe, is the radical implication of a “Lean Revolution” – humans working in concert to serve humans.

    Bravo for bring up this point, and sorry if I am a bit too inspired / wordy for a “comment.”

  8. Great post, Mark. As I often tell my students, clients, blog and column readers I am a perpetual student – I’m always learning something new. Although I’ve read MTL twice (I had an advance copy) I somehow missed the subtlety that you’ve now made so obvious. Another lesson learned.
    .-= Tom Southworth ´s last blog .. =-.

  9. Great post!!!
    It comes to my mind a sports analogie:
    I’m supporter of the FCBarcelona (soccer). We have winn all the tournaments last year. It was the first season for the new young coach (Pep Guardiola). Many people here ask themselve how he does it. One of the reasons is that he has a enormous respect for the players. When lossing a match he never blame to the players. We lost a match last week. He says: “we didn ´t used a good strategy”. By respecting the humanity and particularity of their players he is abble to get the best from each of them.


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