Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Michael Ballé on how to really build trust in a lean company

Michael Ballé on how to really build trust in a lean company

Michael Ballé
June 1, 2018

FEATURE – In this interesting piece, the author explains why living up to the ideal of mutual trust is hard, and how lean tools can help us build a workplace based on respect.

Words: Michael Ballé, lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France.

Mutual trust is the basis of lean, we’ve known that much for years. It’s in all the old-time Toyota presentations and, in fact, the very first paper published in 1977 by Toyota veterans described the Toyota Production System as just-in-time (including jidoka) on the one hand and respect for human on the other. TPS was seen as a system by which “workers are allowed to display in full their capabilities through active participation in running and improving their own workshops.”

Indeed, a typical representation of TPS would look like this:

Toyota Production System early representation

Still, when we think through the system, we tend to start at the top – its objectives. We consider how customer satisfaction breaks down into a list of improvement directions, from the early versions’ lowest cost, highest quality, and shortest lead-time to more modern challenges like energy performance and connectivity.

At that point, we normally get bogged down in figuring out the twin pillars of just-in-time and jidoka, in all their complex technicity, and how the kaizen program can fit within that.

By the time we get to actually looking into mutual trust, discussions start to get vaguer. The tools for just-in-time or jidoka might be difficult to implement, but they’re relatively easy to grasp. We can wrap our minds around their intent, the way they work and study their many practical applications to familiarize ourselves with what they really do and how we can start experimenting with them.

But mutual trust is trickier, because anything to do with human motivation is harder to pin down in terms of operational definitions. Psychology has a lot to offer in this sense, but is also part of the problem. It is quite clear that the lean learning system is a people-centric system in the sense that every improvement from Sakichi Toyoda’s very first loom kaizen to the way Toyota is currently rethinking its factories is about 1) making team member’s jobs easier, and 2) creating space for ingenuity and initiative.

But beyond that, what does it mean to actually start with trust?

Let’s begin with the employee, the person. Psychology does help here, inasmuch as we can confidently draw a shortlist of where people need to feel confident to enjoy their work:

  1. Responsibility: A person needs to feel confident they have the skills to undertake their responsibility and that they won’t be asked to do something they think is undoable. They also need to feel they will be recognized for their efforts and current commitment rather than constantly asked for more.
  2. Safety: A person needs to feel physically and psychologically safe, which means they shouldn’t have to worry about being suddenly “attacked” by either co-workers or management with what they would consider is threatening or unacceptable behavior.
  3. Progress: A person needs to find an interest in the job, see how it is useful and meaningful and slightly challenging in order to keep it interesting, as well as a clear path to personal progress in the organization – both in terms of compensation and responsibility.
  4. Control: Some degree of control over one’s environment and skills is essential for humans to feel confident and good about the three previous points. Studies show that control in the most practical things, such as taking care of plants or choosing how to arrange one’s desk, matter disproportionately (not to mention the big things, such as choosing who to work with on which projects).

Starting from this shortlist, from a manager’s perspective, we can easily score from 0 to 10, person per person, on how much effort we’re putting in making sure they feel confident in their responsibility, safety, progress and control.

And, there lies the rub, as we immediately hit the first snag: this exercise requires tremendous honesty. People are people. They have moods, life circumstances no one knows about, and tend to hide their true areas of difficulty. Managers are people too, often with the same concerns. Overall, and in all likelihood, on any given day you will have asked someone for a result or change they don’t think they can deliver, offended or shocked someone without realizing you did, discouraged someone else by giving a promotion to their neighbor or hiring outside, or simply putting the bar so high no one feels they’re progressing. Finally, it’s increasingly easy to take away any sort of control simply by pressing corporate standards onto people and turning down any initiative (mostly without realizing that you’re doing so).

Trust is hard to build, and easy to destroy. This is particularly tricky in a fast-moving environment where there are many more challenges than resources, and where managers always need to get more done. Therefore, it’s risky to explicitly claim “mutual trust” as a key objective because not a day goes by without an incident that shows that you, as a manager, can’t hold up to that ideal.

We need to face two basic facts: that we are all fallible (both managers and employees will get things wrong at times, tempers get high, people get hurt, relationships are threatened and sometimes seriously damaged); and that we are also quite resilient (even when something goes bad, people tend to be quite sensitive to the motivation, the intent behind the incident, and actually be quite forgiving of an unfortunate blunder when there was no ill-will or negative intent behind it).

Intent, and proving the seriousness of intent, therefore matters considerably to buffer the unavoidable missteps and screw-ups of day-to-day life at work.

And this is where four basic lean tools help us to create a space to demonstrate your commitment to a respectful work environment:

  • 5S: By giving teams a method and the freedom to organize their own environments with the aim of supporting their standardized work, management can support their team members’ sense of control as well as create a safe space to listen to the real difficulties people encounter during their day-to-day job.
  • Teams, team leaders, stand-up meetings and problem solving: Daily stand-up meetings are ideal to clarify the day’s responsibility (this is what we have to achieve to consider the day a success) and remind people of standards, as well as act where the team feels they need support or are being asked for unreasonable results in their working conditions. The team leader’s role is to support every team member in succeeding in their day – and obviously the choice of team leader makes a huge difference to the mutual trust atmosphere in the team – as well as the quick support from front-line management.
  • Enabling systems improvement: In the plant, this used to be TPM, because the first condition for doing a good job is that every machine is available and works as it’s supposed to. This can be expanded to enabling systems (such as IT) and showing to employees that executives are working constantly to simplify and improve existing systems to make life easier for people at the front line.
  • A plan per person: Management can develop the discipline of regularly checking where each person would like to progress and who to staff in their role, in order to keep the organization dynamic and moving through people as well. This involves, first, to create ad hoc roles when need be and, second, to support people with what they need to learn in order to get that new role. Seeing people progress through the organization is essential to believing that success is possible here.

Clearly, the concept of mutual trust in Toyota’s thinking emerged in a very unique set of cultural circumstances. As noted in the original 1977 article, Japan then had a lifetime employment system, unions by company rather than by industry, little discrimination between shop workers and white-collar staff, and many opportunities to promote workers to managerial positions. We now understand that these conditions rarely present themselves in today’s companies and industries.

However, managers can still commit to pay attention to displaying workers abilities. (A further robust finding of psychology is that we don’t pay attention to what we think is important, we find important what we pay attention to.)

By creating visual spaces for defining success (production analysis boards), taking initiative in problem solving (problem, cause, countermeasure, impact sheets), visualizing standards, team self-study and improvement with kaizen, and encouraging creative idea suggestions, managers can set up the platforms for initiative and opportunities that demonstrate trust.

More deeply, when it comes to lean tools, attitude is essential. When looking at any lean tool, to start with trust, first ask yourself this question: “What is the mission of the team member when it comes to this tool?” And then follow up with, “Where is the benefit for them? How are we supporting them when they run into trouble?”

The great thing about trust is that it grows as people begin to rely on one another and both sides demonstrate readiness to solve problems together and good faith in accepting unavoidable slip-ups and setbacks. But the one thing we must keep in mind is that in reality there is no such thing as “trust” – only proofs of it. This means proving mutual trust, every day, everywhere, with everyone.


Michael Ballé is a lean author, executive coach and co-founder of the Institut Lean France

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