Reflections on Respect and Countermeasures — In Workplaces and Society


The past few months have been an anxious and contemplative time. I've been worried about the coronavirus / Covid-19 and the possible impact on my health or my family's health. But, I'm blessed, as we have our health and this era has not been a financial catastrophe as it has been for so many others.

It's been a time to get comfortable with wearing masks in public places. Wearing cloth masks does not provide perfect protection for the wearer. Wearing a mask is clearly better than not wearing one, for my own sake.

But, wearing a cloth masks dramatically blocks the outbound flow of droplets. I don't know if I am (or have been) an asymptomatic carrier, so wearing a mask is a way of showing respect for others — a way of helping protect others.

A cloth mask isn't a perfect countermeasure. It's not the only countermeasure that we need. Covid-19 is not the only problem.

Everybody Deserves Respect

The past two weeks have also been a time to think about the pain that's felt by so many, not just as a reaction to the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, three African Americans. It's been a time to reflect on (and protest) the systemic racism and police brutality that sadly exists in American society.

As a heterosexual white male, I can't pretend to know what it feels like to be profiled or discriminated against. But, I can stand with those who are trying to improve our society (and the world) to make it a safe and equitable place for all.

I can (and must) do more than honk my horn when driving past a small group with signs that read “Honk for Justice” and “Black Lives Matter.”

One of my heroes, the late Paul O'Neill, often said that everybody in an organization should be able to say “yes” as a response to this question (in addition to twos others, as I wrote about here):

“Am I treated with dignity and respect by everyone I encounter without regard to race, gender, rank, educational attainment, or any other distinguishing feature?”

He sometimes added sexual orientation as one of those distinguishing features (sometimes that's not outwardly distinguishing, of course). I think his “any other” was meant to be as broad and as inclusive as possible.

I think it's even better (and I think Mr. O'Neill would have agreed) if every PERSON can answer yes to that question in their daily lives (not just in the workplace). They should be able to answer yes to that question as applied to any encounter with law enforcement.

In the workplace, this question of respect (from Mr. O'Neill and from Toyota) means all sorts of things. It's not just what we say (or don't say) or what we do (or don't do).

I think it's not enough to say “I'm respectful… which means I don't say anything disrespectful.”

I've sadly heard disrespectful things in various workplaces.

At a manufacturing company, an engineer was frustrated and lashed out in a team meeting, saying to a group, “It wouldn't be a problem if our operators could read English!” Yeah, those operators were standing right there, as part of the “team” meeting.

The engineer wasn't just making assumptions about their literacy. It was a very multi-cultural team, including people of color, and his comments were rightfully called out as being flat out offensive. He apologized, but it understandably damaged his relationships with many. It's hard to unring certain bells once rung.

He was being prejudiced and his words (a form of action) were discriminatory. It didn't matter that he had no formal workplace authority over them.

I think it's not enough to say “I'm respectful, which means I don't DO anything disrespectful.”

That's maybe the bare minimum, not doing or saying anything blatantly disrespectful. But there are subtle, often systematic, ways in which certain classes of employees are not treated equally.

For example, why do physicians get the best parking spots at some hospitals? Because it's always been done that way? Does this perferential parking only end up reinforcing hierarchies that can lead to patient safety problems?

There are Broader Issues

From that I've been trying to learn and reflect on, we could replace the word “respectful” with the word “racist” in the above bold-italic sentences. Is it enough to not say blatantly racist things? Is it enough to not do blatantly racist things? That seems like the bare minimum to me. We must do more.

From what I've been reading, prejudice and discrimination are often individual acts. Racism is a much broader system / societal issue.

I admire and appreciate that Eric Ries and the Lean Startup Week event have actively recruited speakers from groups that are traditionally underrepresented on stage at conferences. Their efforts go beyond a simple statement in a blog post. Can other Lean events do more? Sure. Can I do more when it comes to inviting diverse voices to participate in my podcasts and other media? Sure. I have tried, but I can do more.

Ignoring Warning Signs

So bringing things back to a workplace situation, let's say a workplace has a manager who one day says something blatantly racist in a team huddle and it's caught on camera. Two supervisors and the director (who is over the manager) are all standing there and don't intervene.

That moment goes viral on social media and the company would likely fire that manager.

Does that mean that the real underlying problem has really been solved? Probably not.

Let's say the manager had 18 formal complaints about their behavior filed with HR (about one complaint per year). If there were 18 complaints, it begs the question of how many other incidents occurred but didn't lead to a complaint due to fear or intimidation.

Let's say two of those 18 complaints led to some sort of slap on the wrist, like a verbal warning to the manager for using a “demeaning tone,” “derogatory language” and other incidents that merited discipline.

After all of this, the manger might get the idea that they could pretty much act with impunity. Let's assume the manager's performance was deemed good generally, so the company excused the complaints about inappropriate comments and behavior.

Until the situation got so bad that it couldn't be ignored any longer.

If you've been following the George Floyd murder, the Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin had 18 complaints filed against him. He got two slaps on the wrist.

When bad behavior is ignored or excused, that becomes a system problem. The “Just Culture” approach in healthcare says as much, if you're familiar with that.

Other system problems would include the selection and hiring process, the training process (or lack thereof), and supervisory processes (or lack thereof).

What are the Countermeasures?

In the case of the George Floyd murder, Derek Chauvin (the officer who had his knee on Floyd's neck for 8+ minutes) was charged criminally. Eventually, the other three officers were charged for aiding and abetting.

It's tempting to think that a problem has been solved when a so-called “bad apple” is fired.

The phrase “bad apple” also gets used in healthcare and the implications of that phrase are often very incorrect. It's thought that the “bad apple” is a rarity or an exception.

But when you look at the phrase “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” that's a different concern altogether. Was the one bad apple who was fired the one that was spoiling the whole bunch, or were they part of the bunch that was being spoiled?? There's likely a system problem when we find a “bad apple.”

There have been other countermeasures in Minneapolis. One is:

“Minneapolis agreed Friday to ban chokeholds and neck restraints by police and to require officers to try to stop any other officers they see using improper force, in the first concrete steps to remake the city's police force since George Floyd's death.”

If that's going to be an effective countermeasure, what about other police departments around the country? Do they also have that risky behavior? Is there a similar threat to people in those cities?

If so, which city is going to proactively take those same measures? Some cities and states are taking such measures.

The Minneapolis City Council also passed an ordinance that said officers have an obligation to intervene if they see police brutality. But, I'm not sure if asking individuals to speak up is an effective countermeasure against systemic problems.

Nurses are often admonished to speak up, out of professional obligation, when they see a surgeon behaving badly (and such bad behavior might include not listening to a tech speaking up about a patient safety risk). Nurses are low in the hierarchy and they might be putting their own job and paycheck on the line if they speak up. That's why I think leaders have an obligation to solve organizational culture issues like these.

I had read that Chauvin was a trainer… and that two of the officers who were there were relatively new officers. Were they afraid to speak up? It's easy to say “you should” speak up, but I wouldn't count on that being an effective countermeasure.

It's also sad and fascinating that Chauvin and the other officers knew they were being filmed. That shows how they apparently felt invincible and could act with impunity. We've seen what appears to be a similar dynamic when white people have been harmed by police recently — it's not just a matter of race.

Back to filming… in recent years, police body cameras have sold as a countermeause to police brutality and other bad behavior. Studies suggest that bodycams don't reduce violent acts and the bodycam is useless if it's not turned on or uncovered.

As a society, we have to figure this out. We need more experiments. We need to be proactive. We need to be principles based. We need to do better.

We need multiple countermeasures. There is no single magical “root cause” as an answer to the question of why people are being mistreated or harmed or killed.

We have to do more than the bare minimum. We have to do better than “not being disrepectful.” We need to be actively anti-disrespectul. Again, it seems, we can apply that to racism.

What do you think?

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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. Thank you for your post, Mark, as always I very much appreciate your perspective.
    I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers over the weekend – he does a very good job at digging into root causes of the 2015 Sandra Bland case, identifying issues in the society and how humans think and interact that led to this tragic outcome. For all Lean thinkers, I can strongly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s books and his podcast Revisionist History.

  2. Mark, thank you for being courageous and addressing racism on your post. I also recently wrote an article to call-to-action Lean thinkers to enter the arena and use our powers for good (social justice) and to help dismantle systematic racism. We possess many of the skills, open-mindedness, and business relationships that will be necessary to do so, i.e. value stream analysis, root cause analysis, A3, humble inquiry, team based problem solving (kaizen), and a network of critical thinkers. I am glad to see you’re on board and look forward to seeing others join us. I will be writing more articles in the near future and plan to roll out Lean action plan soon to help organizations use Lean thinking to create more diverse and inclusive work environments. “Forward together, not one step back!” —Rev Dr Barber.


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