Can You Answer “Yes” to These Three Important Workplace Questions?


I'm often reminded of three challenging questions that are asked by Paul O'Neill, former CEO of Alcoa and former US Treasury Secretary.

I've mentioned the questions before, in this blog post about Eric Ries and an employee's bill of rights. See more blog posts and my podcast with Mr. O'Neill.

Sadly, I'm reminded of the questions when I'm around people who cannot answer “yes” to them in healthcare workplaces. This is a widespread problem.

I found this 2012 article where Mr. O'Neill asks these questions:

“I believe an organization has the potential for greatness if every person can say yes to three questions without reservation,” Mr. O'Neill said.

Notice how he frames this as “potential” for organizational “greatness?” He's not saying we should be respectful for the sake of being respectful. There's nothing wrong with being respectful, and I wish it were always the default way of operating. I think Toyota also makes a case for why “respect for people” is the best long-term business strategy if we're looking to be successful and sustain success.

It's win/win… being respectful and being successful go hand in hand. Is it possible to be successful without respect for people? Sure… for a while. But is that sustainable?

So, the three questions are:

  1. “Can I say every day I am treated with dignity and respect by everyone I encounter without respect to my pay grade, or my title, or my race, or ethnicity or religious beliefs or gender?
  2. Am I given the things I need – education, training, tools, encouragement – so I can make a contribution to this organization that gives meaning to my life?
  3. Am I recognized for what I do by someone I care about?”

To the first question, Mr. O'Neill says:

“And you know, there are not a lot of places like that.”

I posted these questions on LinkedIn and generated a lot of discussion and response.

One friend of mine who is a Lean-thinking manager in a hospital said he was going to ask those questions of his team. I'm hoping he'll share some thoughts in a comment, even if he does so anonymously here.

As with patient safety (as I've blogged about), we have to move beyond lip service.

Mr. O'Neill says, in the article (which is a great read):

“Every company I know of says somewhere in its annual report, ‘People are our most important resource,' but my observation from all these places I had worked was that there was no evidence it was true.”

Respect is the reason why we focus on employee safety and patient safety. Respect means we partner with people to improve. This all goes hand in hand.

How would you answer those three questions? You can answer the Twitter polls, shown below, or leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

What can we do to increase the number of people who can say yes to that question in the workplace?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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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 began sharing these to my team last week after you posted them. My first pass was sharing them in a huddle and that resulted in a couple of great sessions where teams were recognizing each other during our “celebrations and recognitions” part.

    I asked if saying yes to these questions was important to my team and I received a very engaged “YES”! I let them know I am committed to working with them and receiving feedback whenever they feel the answer is “NO” (or a very struggled/barely-got-there “YES”)

    I added a focus on these three questions to my leader standard work kanban each week.

    The few team huddles I have shared this hasn’t resulted in feedback which points to opportunities for improvement yet. One group said they want to explore more in-depth with our mini-team meeting. Another group gave me feedback that it would be easier to give their thoughts on this at a 1:1 so I will add as a focus in my leadership rounding.

    So I am going to try the different methods to help uncover what I can do to help people say YES. These questions match my personal values and also resonated with my team.

    On a personal note, it is a bit scary as a leader to put these out there but I can only improve if I am humble so the fright is worthwhile!

    Thank you again for sharing these Mark!

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Brian.

      Asking for feedback always opens the risk of hearing something that stings. Getting feedback from early readers of “Measures of Success” has led to a few moments like that… but the sting goes away and you can improve as a result.

  2. “What can we do to increase the number of people who can say yes to that question in the workplace?”

    The rate of “increase” cannot exceed the rate of increase of leaders adopting the principles that I believe we see espoused by Deming, et al. Change the hearts of leaders and you will change the culture. The US still begets knucklehead leadership and managers bent on ranking, internal competition, parent/child relationships… shall I go on?


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