Main Ask an Expert Member Information Home

Creating a Lean-Ready Workforce - Raphael L. Vitalo, Ph.D.and Scott Harrison, MBA, CCP

  • Problem
  • Basic Principle of Human Relating
    Action Plan for Creating a Lean-Ready Workforce
  • Step 1. Communicate Decency and Respect
  • Step 2. Teach Your Workforce the Skills Needed to Work Together Effectively
  • Step 3. Create a Workplace That Is Clean and Orderly
  • Step 4. Involve Your Employees in the Business
  • Step 5. Be Fair and Equitable to All
  • Step 6. Set and Uphold the Expectation for Honesty and Integrity in the Workplace
  • The Added Benefit of This Action Plan
    Further Reading
    Feedback Please



    To become a lean enterprise, you need a workforce that is aligned and teamed in its purpose, energized to accomplish its end, and capable and pioneering in all it does. Every improvement initiative of any scope or complexity has these requirements for a number of reasons. It is the employees who possess the most detailed knowledge of the work of the business. It is their energy and minds that must drive the effort, develop and make improvements, and ensure that those improvements sustain over time. Lean transformations especially require high levels of involvement for their success. Lean's approach to creating competitive advantage positions every employee as an engine of continuous improvement in the pursuit of perfection. Perfection is defined as the elimination of waste in every operation that exists within the extended value stream and the maximization of value in every feature of the product or service offering the customer receives. To this end, each employee, whatever his or her role, must personally engage in kaizen. For these personal efforts to cohere into business-wide benefits, every employee must be rooted in a common purpose and guided by a common understanding. People must hold each other and themselves accountable in the pursuit of this purpose and they must reflexively coordinate their efforts so that local improvements do not reverberate into system-wide problems and system-wide improvements receive the cooperate effort they require for success.


    Most businesses lack such a workforce. Worse, there are significant barriers to developing such a workforce. For example, to establish this workforce, there must already exist trust and a positive climate of human relationships. Most businesses lack these features. While a majority of employees express pride in their work, they do not express trust in the managers who lead their businesses. Indeed, it is a common finding that most employees neither trust that leadership communicates honestly nor that their organizations are well managed (Business Wire, 2002; Jaggs, 2008). Further, studies of employee engagement find that most employees are “not engaged” in their companies—meaning that they do not identify with and act to promote their companies’ objectives apart from doing their assigned jobs (Gallup Management Journal, 2002). Two more recent estimates of “not engaged” employees are 71% (BlessingWhite, Inc., 2002) and 77% (Towers Perrins, 2008). Given the absence of trust and a positive climate of human relationships in most businesses, how does a company leader create a climate of positive relationships between levels of employees (executive, managerial, supervisory, and front-line), within each level, and across the entire company? The answer is, "Start with yourself and your leadership team!"


    Basic Principle of Human Relating

    The basic principle of relating in western cultures is "reciprocity." Briefly, people tend to relate to others as others relate to them. If I show respect and valuing for you, you are far more likely to show respect and valuing for me. Therefore, in all human relations, your first step in eliciting a desired behavior from others is to model that behavior in your relationship with them. Complementing this principle is the understanding that people draw closer to others who respect them, and pull away emotionally and behaviorally from those whom they feel treat them indecently. With effort and consistency, you can leverage these two pieces of knowledge into transforming your workplace relationships so that they are "lean ready."


    Action Plan for Creating a Lean-Ready Workforce

    Here are six essential actions that model respect and valuing for others and create the conditions that ready all members of your business to participate together in establishing a lean enterprise.


    Step 1. Communicate Decency and Respect

    As an employer, I communicate decency and respect in many ways. I do it by simply greeting people by name each day or whenever I encounter them, showing interest in who they are and what they do, and recognizing with specificity their labor and contributions to the business. A few critical interpersonal skills enable my success in such communications. These are attending, observing, greeting, listening, and responding to what someone else has said. The more effectively I communicate interest in and understanding of my employees, the more valued they feel. The more I establish such behavior as the norm of conduct by all my managers and supervisors, the greater the effect of this atmosphere of decency on each and every worker and the more likely it is that employees will reciprocate with respect and valuing for leadership and for the business within which we all work. With regard to the skills for showing interest and understanding, consider the interpersonal skill programs of Robert R. Carkhuff (Carkhuff, 2000). These programs have been modified for use in businesses and have demonstrated significant contributions to productivity (Carkhuff, 1983).


    Step 2. Teach Your Workforce the Skills Needed to Work Together Effectively

    Building on this, teach all the members of the business how to effectively work together to accomplish the business's tasks and goals. Using simple skills such as clarifying and confirming what another has shared ensures that we get accurately the information and ideas others offer. Other skills like constructive criticism and hitchhiking allow us to work cooperatively to improve each others' ideas and generate best solutions to problems together. These Working With Others skills eliminate the misunderstanding and friction that wastes energy and time and alienates people. To learn these skills, study our Working With Others Training Program. This program has been proven to improve people's ability to work together effectively. The program has been demonstrated to improve productivity as well as elevate employee morale (Byron and Vitalo, 2004; Vitalo and Byron, 2004). We use the Working With Others Training Program to initiate employee involvement in the lean initiative. The sessions deliver communication skills, teach about the initiative, and have participants apply their new skills to uncover and eliminate barriers to involvement in making lean succeed. In one event, critical skills are learned, involvement is begun, and every employee participates in making the business better.


    Step 3. Create a Workplace That Is Clean and Orderly

    Decency must also be communicated by attention to the physical setting in which people work. Is the workplace clean? Is it orderly? Is it free of harmful noise, safety hazards, and pollution? Does it have the basic amenities (a clean lavatory, a place to have one's meal)? A workplace need not be fancy, but it must show the same respect and valuing of the person that one communicates in direct contact; otherwise, you reveal yourself as disingenuous and undermine your workers' trust in you. For improving the workplace, consider a program like 6S (Roll, 2005). This tool not only makes the setting respectful of the people who operate within it, but it actually returns improved business results by eliminating waste.


    Step 4. Involve Your Employees in the Business

    Take the next step in showing respect for all employees by involving them in the business more fully. At a bare minimum, keep them informed about its goals, plans, and current level of achievement. Solicit their ideas about how to improve the business. Get their feedback on issues that affect their work. These simple involvement activities also pay off in better business results when leadership acts on the information and ideas it receives. Here again, there is a union between decent and respectful behavior that elicits a reciprocal response from employees and the achievement of measurable business benefits. For ideas about how to begin involving workers in the business, read Using Working With Others Training Sessions to Drive Employee Involvement. This article describes a project that accomplished in one initiative both Steps 2 and 4.


    Step 5. Be Fair and Equitable to All

    The next step in communicating respect for employees is to be fair and equitable in all dealings with them. This includes how you as an employer address issues of compensation (direct and indirect), development, and promotion. It is not sufficient to offer pay and benefits that are comparable to your competitors. Read the analyses of executive pay and their relationship to front-line worker pay, especially the recent analysis reported by Dash (2006). Recognize and integrate into your thinking about fairness what it means that the people said to be "doing the real work" do not experience the same growth in compensation as the heads of their companies. Perhaps these conditions are not true for your company—but, if they are, fully appreciate their meaning. Recall also that it is these same executives who, when misconduct occurs below them, respond that they cannot be responsible for that behavior as they must rely on the competence and trustworthiness of those who they employ. Make certain that you are treating all your employees equitably. Find ways to allow employees to share in the benefits business improvements they implement produce at levels proportionately equal to the levels experienced by owners and top-level executives. Consider systems like FairSharingsm (The Harrison Group, LLC) that develop organization-wide scorecarding systems that tie variable pay to achievement and the actual dollars those achievements produce.

    Irrespective of pay, remember that small acts of recognition (a $15 dollars gift card) and even non-monetary awards (certificate of appreciation) are significant ways to honor the contributions of employees. But, do not consider such actions as fair if the executives over these individuals receive rewards that are thousands of times larger for the same improvements.


    Step 6. Set and Uphold the Expectation for Honesty and Integrity in the Workplace

    Once you and your management team are consistently modeling respect, valuing, and fairness—establish these behaviors as an expectation for all employees in their dealings with each other and with customers, suppliers,and the community. This expectation needs to be communicated clearly and consistently along with the consequences of failing to satisfy it. A first failure should be handled by documenting what happened, exploring why it happened, and taking action to enable the person who failed to correct and improve his or her behavior. If this effort fails, then recycle the process to uncover what undermined it and try one more time. If the second effort fails, then the person must be let go. Apply this same corrective process at every level of employee from executive through to front-line worker. The expectation for respect, valuing, and fairness must apply to all levels in the organization—leadership, management, supervisors, and front-line workers. And, if it is not applied consistently, it will have no meaning. Reflect on this point and recognize also that it relates to your business's behavior in the marketplace. It will do no good to demand respect, valuing, and fairness from your employees while your company exploits market conditions to soak your customers for every dollar they have or fails them in satisfying one or another expectation to which it committed to meet. Any breach of consistency in your behavior as an owner or the behavior of your company, invites a similar breach of consistency by anyone in your company.


    The Added Benefit of This Action Plan

    Every action required to ready people to work together effectively also produces improvements in business results. Being decent and showing interest and understanding elevates morale and makes the workplace more pleasant and engaging. Providing people the skills to work together effectively makes the human interactions within your organization efficient and enables them to yield better business results. Applying 6S to the workplace eliminates waste and hazards that detract from business operations and results. 6S also creates a setting that is desirable to be in. Initiating employee involvement results in gathering ideas that are valuable to improving your business and will add energy and excitement to doing work. Establishing the expectation for decency and integrity in your business from everyone and consistently enforcing that expectation with humanness creates your business as an island of sanity in what is frequently a less-than-sane or decent world. Every step benefits the business as well the people who power the business. And, every step advances you in becoming "lean ready."



    Elicit honesty and integrity from all members of a workplace by leveraging the principle of reciprocity.
    Be decent and respectful toward workers (attend to them and greet them by their names).
    Show interest and understanding in what they do and say.
    Recognize and reward their efforts and contributions.
    Require the same behaviors from every manager and supervisor.
    Teach all employees how to work together constructively.
    Carry respect for the employee to the physical workplace itself.
    Involve employees in the business.
    Be fair and equitable in all dealings including issues of pay, incentives, awards, development, and promotion.

    Set and enforce the expectation for honesty and integrity in the workplace and in all dealings with customers, suppliers, and the community.


    Further Reading

    Business Wire (2002, August 2). US workers feel pride in jobs, organizations, but don't trust managers; new study shows big disconnect between management, non-management views. Retrieved January 22, 2009, from

    Byham, William C. (1992) Zapp! The Lightening of Empowerment. New York, NY: Ballentine Books.

    Byron, James S. and Bierley, Patricia V. (2003) Working With Others Training Program. O'Fallon, MO: Lowrey Press.

    Byron, James. S. and Vitalo, Raphael L. (2004) Using Working With Others Training Sessions to Drive Employee Involvement. Hope, ME: Vitalo Enterprises. Available online at:

    Carkhuff, Robert R. 1983) Interpersonal Skills and Human Productivity.Amherst, MA: Human Resources Development Press, Inc., 1983

    Carkhuff, Robert R. (2000) The Art of Helping in the 21st Century. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press.

    BlessingWhite, Inc. (2008). The state of employee engagement 2008. Princeton, NJ: BlessingWhite, Inc. Retrieved January 24, 2009, from

    Dash, Eric (2006) Executive Pay: A Special Report. Off to the Races Again, Leaving Many Behind. New York Times, April 9, 2006. Available online at:

    Etter, Lauren (2006, January 21, 2006). Hot Topic: Are CEOs Worth Their Weight in Gold?  The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 21, 2006, at A7.

    Gallup Management Journal, (2002). Gallup study finds that many employees doubt the ethics of corporate leaders. Gallup Management Journal, October, 2002. Retrieved January 24, 2009, from

    Jaggs, L. (2008). Almost half of UK employees don’t trust their CEO. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from

    Maremont, Mark (2005) Latest Twist in Corporate Pay: Tax-Free Income for Executives. Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2005, page A1. Retrieved July 17, 2008, from

    McGeehan, Patrick (2003, April 6) Again, Money Follows the Pinstripes. New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2008, from

    Roll, Don (2005) An Introduction to 6S. Hope, ME: Vitalo Enterprises. Available online at:

    Towers Perrin (2008). Closing the engagement gap: A road map for driving superior business performance. Retrieved May 5, 2010, from

    Vitalo, Raphael L. and Byron, James S. (2004) Using Working With Others Training to Elevate Morale and Productivity. Hope, ME: Vitalo Enterprises. Available online at:


    Published April 2006; Revised July 2008, May 2011

    Help Us Provide You Better Content.
    Tell us your thoughts about this article.
    Be sure to name the article in your feedback.