Lead With Respect by Michael and Freddy Balé is a different kind of Lean book than you’re probably used to. Rather than the usual philosophical tome or the ‘how to’ manuals that sit on many a Continuous Improvement manager’s bookshelf, Lead With Respect is a novel that teaches Lean principles through a story arc.
The plot revolves around Jane Delaney, the CEO of Southcape Software, a software development company and Andy Ward, VP of Nexplas, an automotive supplier company, and a customer of Southscape. After a contentious meeting in the opening pages of the book, Ward challenges Delaney to reevaluate how she is managing her company. Although frustrated by the fact that she and her team can’t quite understand what exactly Nexplex wants her company to do for them and taken aback by the brashness of Ward’s suggestion that she is the problem, Jane Delaney eventually decides to see what this lean nonsense that Ward is so steeped in is all about and agrees to allow him to teach her about leading with respect. After a slow and frustrating start, made even more frustrating by the fact that Ward seems to ask more questions than give her actual direction, Jane begins to see how her managerial style is reflected in her employee’s attitude and performance. Soon, as she changes the way she interacts with her employees and has them participate in improving the processes at Southscape, Jane begins to see her company, and its culture, change for the better.
Jane Delaney isn’t a tyrannical boss who has a dramatic change of heart in the second act and is redeemed at the book’s finally. Far from it. She is a well rounded character who is doing the best she can as a manager and has the best interests of her company and her employees at heart. This is where I think this book could be particularly insightful to someone who is not familiar with Lean management and Toyota’s principle of “Respect for People”. It is possible to be a good manager who genuinely cares for your employees and even respects them as people while still not ‘leading with respect’ because leading with respect means recognizing that everyone has contributions that they can make to the whole and empowering your employees with the tools and the freedom to improve, and just like Jane, that begins with questioning what we think we already know.
Lead With Respect is definitely worth the read. Although the dialogue between Andy and Jane can come off as a little awkward in places due to the fact that these conversations are for the benefit of teaching the reader about a certain Lean concept or another rather than the fully organic interaction between characters that pure fiction is allowed, the book is very well written and the characters are well developed. It’s easy to get caught up in the story and forget the fact that you’re learning management principles at the same time. So if you’re burned out on philosophies and charts and graphs and illustrations of value streams but still want to learn about Lean, give your left brain a break, pick this book up and let your right brain get in on the action.