I read an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day that really struck home the point that, whether a company is likely to become lean or not really boils down to a very fundamental question:

Do you think people are inherently lazy, looking to get as much money as they can while doing the least work possible, and that they basically can’t be trusted?


Do you think people are inherently good, want to work hard in order to accomplish something worthwhile and take pride in themselves and their work?

If you fall into the first camp, you think management is about control, and ponder questions about how to motivate people. You would probably fit in at Intel where, when confronted with data showing that grading people for performance assessment purposes is a waste of time, reacted with concern “that forgoing ratings would suck healthy tension out of the workplace.”  Healthy tension?  There is nothing “healthy” about “tension” in any setting.

Folks who think the people on the shop floor have to be measured and controlled with rules and policies have no chance whatsoever of evolving to anything remotely close to the truly lean companies.  They will never get beyond standard costs and labor efficiency tracking, and their HR function will never contribute much beyond writing and enforcing policies.  This is Jack Welch – grade everyone’s performance numerically and then whack the lowest 10% just to keep everyone on their toes – thinking.

Of course, if you think people are basically slackers, it is true.  It is a very simple self-fulfilling view.  If you think that way, you manage people like they are the enemy and look to every chance to minimize their paychecks … and no big surprise – they behave like you are the enemy.  Treat people like you expect them to sue you at the first opportunity by loading them down with policies and rules, have them account for every minute of the time for which they expect to be paid, assign supervisors to act like glorified babysitters and it is inevitable that people will react as though you are the enemy.

Of course, lean companies and lean culture are built around the second view of people, and it is also a self-fulfilling opinion.  Treat people with the respect they deserve as responsible, functioning adults and they just about always respond in time.

There are so many management teams that want the benefits of lean, but cannot or will not give up their negative view of the people they have hired and put in place.  They want the upside of lean, but can’t do without time clocks, HR policy manuals, and labor efficiency as the core of their metric and accounting world. 

You can’t have it both ways.  Either you are all in or all out in your opinion of people.