Why Lean Management’s Rubrics Cannot
Tell Us What Lean’s View of People Is
- Raphael L. Vitalo, Ph.D. and Christopher J. Bujak
One of the central rubrics of lean management guidance is that managers should
always act from a basis of knowledge (Ballé 2009; Emiliani 1998). The
central component of this knowledge is the Lean model’s understanding
about the nature of people. The reasons for this should be clear. Lean enterprises
are inherently cooperative efforts involving all members of an extended value
stream. These members are engaged in commerce with each other. They continuously
exchange resources (information, raw inputs, intermediate outputs, knowledge,
etc.) between them to enable each other’s success and the success of
all in providing value-adding offerings to customers. These acts of exchange
are both a personal and social in nature. At a personal level, each individual—owner,
worker, supplier, or customer—decides whether to engage in commerce and
to what end. Each person decides what he or she will exchange, with whom, and
under what circumstances. At the social level, people must connect with their
potential partners in commerce, engage them in the exchange of resources, and
involve them in making that exchange. Prior to that moment, persons initiating
an exchange must shape their offering and its presentation so that it addresses
the values and needs of its recipients. All of these issues and more are recognized
as important within Lean thinking.
In this light, an extended value stream may be seen as a cluster of commercial
activities that create and maintain a cooperative enterprise such as a modern
business. Included in this “commerce” are the interactions that
occur within and between every group that contributes to the ultimate exchange
between a business and its customers. As just a few examples, consider the
commerce that occurs between an organization and (a) its employees concerning
their employment, (b) its suppliers concerning ordering and receiving their
needed inputs, (c) its governmental regulators concerning compliance with regulations
and license to operate, and (d) any other entity from which the business needs
A fundamental implication of this fact is that all the cooperative activities
that create, operate, sustain, and enable the success of a lean enterprise
require the effective cooperation among many people. How do we as managers
ensure the success of these tasks? What knowledge about people informs our
judgments about connecting and communicating with others? What knowledge guides
us in engaging, involving, enabling, and ensuring each person’s success
and our collective success in implementing a Lean enterprise?
Assumptions About Human Nature
It is our understanding of the nature of people from which management
guidance flows. This knowledge is represented as a commercial approach’s
(e.g., Lean Enterprise’s) view of people’s inherent motives, values,
goals, and social inclination. Do people act on the basis of external rewards
alone, for example, or is their behavior directed by inner values other than
the acquisition of material rewards? Are people inclined to be cooperative
or self-serving? Do the ends they natively seek serve themselves alone? Are
people inclined to consider the position of others? Each of these questions
affects whether and how an organization can be created and sustained; whether
and how people can be aligned to a common goal; whether and how one can successfully
engage, involve, and enable their successful performance. And all these behaviors
constitute lean manager responsibilities.
The prevailing producer-focused, profit-maximizing approach
to commerce has explicit assumptions about human motivation and the ends people
views people as rationally pursuing their self interest without regard for
the welfare of other people (Hosseini 2010; Hubel 2014; Yamagishi, Takagishi,
Matsumoto, and Kiyonari 2014). For producers, self-interest is profit measured
monetarily. By extension, this would apply to workers as well since they too
are sellers. They sell their labor to employers. For customers, self-interest
is understood to be garnering maximum “utility” from every transaction.
Utility refers to acquiring the greatest possible satisfaction of the value
the person seeks to satisfy. In the producer-focus, profit-maximizing approach
to commerce, this too is measured monetarily. In other words, human behavior —whether
as producer, worker, supplier, or customer—is driven to realize for oneself
the maximum acquisition of personal gain measured monetarily. Given these assumptions,
a manager would expect each person in a commercial context to operate selfishly
unless acted upon to do otherwise.
What management guidance flows from this model’s assumptions about people’s
nature? How would you recruit workers? How would you ensure that they perform
their work as you specify? Based on its assumptions, people should be recruited
using monetary incentives. Management should be directive and controlling.
Workers should be actively supervised to ensure that they align to the organization’s
purpose since their intrinsic direction is to pursue their own purpose. Given
that their purpose is to maximize their own benefits, they will be inclined
to do the least to get the most. That is, to take the rewards while not having
to give the effort expected in return. Thus, a manager will need to monitor
performance to ensure that he or she is getting full worth for money spent.
Management will need to establish rewards and punishment schedules to ensure
that the conduct of workers match what the organization needs to maximally
profit. By extension, each worker should be vigilant to ensure that he or she
is not being exploited by management. In fact, every party in every exchange
must be vigilant to safeguard his or her interest. Hence, every market—a
context within which people make exchanges—is ruled by the principle
of caveat emptor.
What Is Lean Thinking’s
Understanding of People?
What are Lean Enterprise’s assumptions about people? How does Lean thinking
replace this producer-focused, profit-maximizing set of assumptions?
Little content in the Lean literature directly addresses the issue of Lean’s
view of people’s native inclinations. Yet, Lean thinking’s understanding
of human nature is the knowledge foundation that underpins its Lean management
guidance. In its current state, Lean management’s guidance is essentially
a set of rubrics that clarify what one should do and how one should behave. “Strive
for perfection in all operations,” “Go to the source to find the
facts” (Genchi Genbutsu), and “Respect people” are three
examples. A model’s understanding of people’s motives, inclinations,
values, and goals explain the “why” beneath Lean management’s
rubrics. It is what allows a Lean manager to act from a basis of knowledge,
not imitation. The question is: “Can one extract from these Lean management
rubrics Lean’s view of the nature of people?” Can one derive from
them the “why” beneath the behavioral guidance? Our conclusion
is that, except in the few instances where a Lean writer specifically addresses
people’s nature, you cannot. Although it may appear otherwise, it is
not possible to extract from Lean management rubrics a definitive statement
of Lean’s assumptions about the nature of people.
The Lean literature’s guidance for managers derives from the practices
observed within the Toyota Motor Company or the teachings of one or another
former Toyota manager or supervisor. They are documented in the works of Emiliani
(2007, 2007a, 2008, 2009), Imai (1986, 1997), Liker (2004), Liker and Convis
(2011), Liker and Hoseus (2008), Liker and Meier (2007), Rother (2009), Shook
(2010, 2011, 2013, 2013a, 2013b, 2014), and Womack (2006, 2009, 2009a), and
Womack and Jones (2003) among others.
As presented in these writings, Lean’s management rubrics are clear and
consistent. They represent “do’s and don’ts” that Lean
managers should follow as they work with people in implementing a Lean enterprise.
For example, Lean managers should elicit people’s ideas for improving
business operations and support them in acting on those ideas so that the business
improves continuously. They should enable people’s success in performing
their roles by providing them guidance through visual knowledge displays that
remind them of the flow of work and information displays that tell them the
status of the operations they are implementing. They should recognize people
for their growth and improvement in the mastery of processes and not simply
focus on their result outcomes. They should empower people to prevent failures
by installing devices like andon cords so they can stop errant operations immediately—on
their own authority.
One might surmise that these and other Lean management rubrics suggest people
can think rationally. They could reasonably suggest that people can align their
thinking and doing with an organization’s purpose and make decisions
that advance that purpose not simply their own. The rubrics might also imply
that people act responsibly when given the latitude to take actions that can
significantly affect business operations. It might seem that the rubrics all
presume that people will voluntarily develop ideas that improve the value of
the business’s processes and products. But, these judgments of underlying
meaning are all possibilities, not certainties. Lean management literature
does not state explicitly what the motives, values, and inclinations of people
are. It does not tell us at all about the other features that form human nature,
affect human commerce, and decide whether, how, and under what conditions people
will work together for a common aim.
Indeed, while Lean management’s rubrics can stimulate thinking about
human nature, their implications for the fundamental nature of people are almost
always equivocal. Fundamentally, the rubrics tell a manager how to behave so
that he or she replicates the manner of performance exhibited by people who
presumably exemplify the Lean approach to commerce. They do not express the
underlying thinking about human nature that explains why the rubrics are essential.
On the one hand, this is understandable given that the guidance is derived
from behavioral observations or reports of instructional points passed down
from ‘elders.’ On the other hand, it is odd because one of the
important rubrics of Lean management is that all contributors should challenge
the “given” by asking the “Why?” question (Womack 2009a).
The ‘Why?’ question, when repeatedly asked, progressively develops
a deeper understanding of the causes and significance of observed behaviors.
This knowledge enables one to properly assess the utility of what one is being
directed to be do and offer suggestions or enhancements to current methods
If the ‘why’ had been asked of the people from whom these management
rubrics were received, they might have revealed Lean’s thinking about
human nature. Absent that exercise, we do not know the understanding about
people that generated these rubrics. We lack the knowledge that underpins them
and should guide their application. We just know that they are deemed essential
to do. And, reduced to imitation, we violate another Lean management rubric.
That rubric asserts that Lean managers should always act from a base of knowledge
(Shook 2010a, 2013a).
An Example of “Equivocal” Meaning
One cornerstone rubric in Lean management is that people must be treated with
respect (Ballé 2015; Baudin 2013; Emiliani 2008, 2009; Shook 2011; Liker
and Hoseus 2008; and many others). But why? It is said by Shook that “We
respect people because we believe it’s the right thing to do and simply
because it makes good business sense” (Shook 2011). While we are personally
comfortable with the first part of this statement (“it's the right thing
to do”), neither it nor the second part—that it “makes good
business sense”—provides a precise insight into Lean’s view
of people’s nature.
From the first part (“it's the right thing to do”), one might infer
that people in general or Lean commerce implementers in specific are naturally
inclined to respect other people and thus carry a fundamental conviction about
its “rightness.” But such a conclusion flies in the face of having
to make ‘respecting others’ a Lean management rule. That statement,
as a mandate, is more consistent with the findings across decades of survey
data reporting how employees feel they are typically treated by their workplace
superiors. Commonly, only a minority of employees report feeling respected
by their bosses.1
Also, if this “rule” about respecting people were just an affirmation
of an inner sense of right and wrong, why present the rational that “it
makes good business sense”? While research supports that assertion (Harter,
Schmidt, and Killham 2003; Harter, Schmidt, Agrawal, and Plowman 2013; Porath
2014), the statement itself suggests that the reason we should treat others
with respect is utilitarian in nature. It implies that people will provide
us more of what we want if we show them respect. That implications supports
two other inferences that conflict with each other. The first is that people
value being respected and will reciprocate by offering value in return. This
assertion is consistent with the empirically supported principle of reciprocity
(Coyle-Shapiro and Kessler 2002; Diekman 2004; Dolivo and Taborsky 2012; Wikhamn
and Hall 2012). The second possible inference is that people in general or
managers in specific operate from self-interest. They take an action in order
to gain a benefit they seek. The “self interest” part is suggested
by the quid pro quo nature of the reasoning for management offering employees
respect—namely, that they will get more or better outcomes from them.
If that is true, the offering of respect is a mere instrumentality to an end. “I
behave in this way to get from you what I want.” This leads to a paradox.
Respect involves recognizing and genuinely valuing some personal quality in
another. Its expression honors the presence of that valued quality in the other.
It has no other purpose. It is not a manipulative act. Indeed, manipulative
acts are commonly experienced as insincere and disrespectful.
Historically, there is a reasonable basis for thinking that the edict to
respect people is utilitarian at its roots and is implemented because it gets
they need. Certainly, Toyota’s shift in its treatment of employees post
strike in 1950 seems utilitarian based. As Shimokawa and Fujimoto (2009) indicate,
Toyota’s cooperative labor-management strategy was triggered by a significant
rise in demand for vehicles by the U.S. Army to wage its war in Korea. Toyota
needed to ramp up its workforce. After World War II, however, the Toyota workforce
created its own labor union. Before the war, all industry labor unions were
company sponsored and company controlled. By 1950, despite the repressive efforts
of the U.S. Army,2 unions did emerge somewhat free of company control and represented
a force Japanese management needed to address. Union unrest was triggered by
downsizing across Japan due the reduced demand for Japanese products. Layoffs
occurred at Toyota as well and led to strike. With the emergence of the new
demand for vehicles by the U.S. Army, thanks to the Korean War, Toyota needed
to reverse course. They needed to ramp up employment. Faced with meeting this
new demand for products and having to deal with a need for workers in the face
of an unhappy workforce, an independent union, and a labor strike—Toyota
adopted a cooperative approach to labor management relations.
Even more than a decade later in its 1962 Joint Declaration of Labor and
Management (Toyota Motor Company 1962), Toyota’s conduct seems instrumentally drive.
That declaration anchors itself in economic necessity. In that instance, it
was the challenge of meeting the added competition that the approaching passenger
car trade liberalization would usher in. That declaration tells us nothing
about the nature of people. It just clarifies what Toyota would provide its
employees in order to get them to commit to fulfilling Toyota’s needs—a
straightforward example of quid pro quo behavior.
The 2003 Toyota statement of Relations with Employees (Toyota Motor Company
2007) emphasizes the “win-win” benefits of mutual trust and respect
and employee investment in self improvement. For employees, it promises “long-term
employment,” “stability in their lives,” and “opportunities
for self-realization and growth.” For the company it promises better
business outcomes and “corporate development.” Again, this suggests
a utilitarian rational for the management rubric of “respect for people” not
some native appreciation for the inherent value of each person or humanity
in general (Miller 2018), or a rooted experience of affinity for others.
If we turn to the famed “The Toyota Way 2001” document for deeper
clarification, we will apparently be disappointed. According to Baudin (2013),
that document does not provide any deeper understanding for the edict, “respect
for people.” While the document is closely held by the company, Baudin
was provided the opportunity to read it. He states, “As a stand-alone
document ... it’s not that useful ... . Based on its content alone, it
would be difficult to tell the Toyota Way apart from other corporate philosophies
like the HP [Hewlitt-Packard] way. A manager of a mid-size traditional plant,
reading The Toyota Way 2001, would reasonably conclude that all he or she needed
to do to emulate Toyota was follow its recommendations.”
Further obscuring Toyota’s underlying thinking about human nature, is
Eiji Toyoda’s comments that no new understanding of people was involved
in its 1950 shift in management-employee relations (see Shimokawa and Fujimoto,
2009, pages 242–45). Indeed, he saw it as simply formalizing what had
been Toyota’s prior commitment to labor-management cooperative relations.
Historical facts do not support that position. They suggest that, previously,
Toyota applied a Taylor-oriented management perspective.3
More to the point, Eiji Toyoda shares no deeper perspective about the nature
of people that would explain the company’s shift from its essentially
a Taylor-orient management perspective toward workers to what we understand
to be the Lean perspective. Indeed, he simply states, “we formalized
our perspective in the labor management declaration. We etched that commitment
in a stone memorial on some anniversary of the declaration. That’s about
all there is to say. We put it in writing on a stone monument in front of the
entrance to our headquarters” (Shimokawa and Fujimoto, 2009, pp. 243–44).
While Eiji Toyota’s statements appear to be meant to suggest that Toyota’s
behavior toward it workers did not change, we believe it did. We simply cannot
find in the statements made by the Toyota Motor Company any explanation for
the change in terms of some new or renewed understanding of who people are.
Rather, they all seem utilitarian based.
Be clear, the above analysis is not meant to imply any insincerity in Toyota
management’s “respect for people.” It is intended to clarify
that from the “respect for people” edict itself, one cannot definitively
deduce the “why” behind the edict. It provides us no certain insight
into either company’s view of human nature or the Lean model’s
Based on our analysis of Lean management’s rubrics, our conclusion is
that you cannot confidently reason backwards from rubrics to assumptions about
people’s nature. This should not be unexpected as backward reasoning
using either modus tolens (with formal knowledge systems) or abduction (with
empirically-based knowledge systems) always produces uncertain conclusions.
Using Modus tolens as your inferencing principle, for example, arriving at
certain conclusions requires an absolute and singular relationship between
an antecedent and its consequent. This means that it only generates a certain
conclusion when there exists either one possible antecedent alone or one inclusive
set of antecedents all of which must be true. If there are many independent
antecedents, then reasoning backward cannot generate a certain solution. For
example, an absolute rule might be “If A and B and C are true, then D
is true.” Given such a rule and no other rule that can generate conclusion
D, modus tolens will produce a certain inference. It will not, however, generate
a correct conclusion if their are multiple independent reasons why D may be
true. In that case, if we find “D” to be true, we know that at
least one of the multiple antecedents is true but not which one. For example,
given the following two independent rules, we know that if we observe “respect
for people” the antecedent in one or the other is true, but not which
Rule 1: “If you seek to get the most out of people, then express
respect for people.”
Rule 2: “If you experience human being as possessing inherent value
then express respect for people.”
As to abduction, it only generates ‘possible’ conclusions and
never certain ones. If it akin to statistical inferencing: “Given that
we observe with great frequency A occurring prior to D occurring, then given
that we observe D,
it is likely that A occurred.”
Unequivocal Assertions About the
Nature of People
We have found a few instances where a Lean writer speaks directly to the nature
of people. In his essay, The Essence of Developing People and Yourself, Shook
(2014) asserts that “Individuals seek challenges.” He also states
that it is through challenges that “unending development comes” (Shook,
2014). While he does not explicitly state that people also seek unending development,
this would be a reasonable, if uncertain, inference. This conclusion is further
supported by Shook’s endorsement of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory
about the human experience of “flow.”4 Csikszentmihalyi defines
the state of flow as, “being completely involved in an activity for its
own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought
follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being
is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost” (Geirland
The “flow” experience is similar in nature to the management construct
of engagement, but it incorporates added elements. For example, “The
flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is
fully immersed in what he is doing” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 2016). The
construct of engagement does not incorporate the notion of intrinsic motivation.
Essentially Csikszentmihalyi’s theory asserts that individuals are transformed
through active involvement in modifying themselves and their situations so
that they achieve greater success in what they are attempting to accomplish.
The flow experience emerges at the point where a person undertakes the maximum
level of challenge he or she is capable of resolving. The growth that emerges
from that experience raises both the level of challenge the person can undertake
and the person’s skills and proficiencies in dealing with it. Thus, it
creates the opportunity for renewed flow experiences which the person then
Shook, however, is conditional as regards people’s natural inclination
to learn, which seems at odds with his notion that people seek challenges and
development, and his endorsement of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory. Shook
states that some people have within them a “searching for more, for more
challenges, for more learning. A hunger for learning and to make things better” (Shook,
2014). When his endorsement of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory and this latter
quoted statement are juxtaposed, it becomes uncertain what his position is
on the fundamental nature of people. This, again, is not a criticism of Shook.
His main purpose in these writings is to instruct Lean managers in the way
they should behave and not the knowledge from which his guidance ultimately
derives. For Shook and all other writers about Lean management, their guidance
is instrumentally focused—i.e., ‘to be a Lean manager, you need
to do this and behave this manner.’ This type of guidance is consistent
with its origins in observing the actions of assumed exemplars in accomplishing
The Lean Model’s
Missing Assumptions About The Nature of People
The conclusion from our analysis of the Lean management literature is that
it does not contain a description of the assumptions about people that explain
the rational basis for its guidance. Yet, such a source exists within its historical
development. That source is the writings of W. Edwards Deming. Deming did indeed
represented a coherent perspective on the nature of people. It is one of the
four domains of “profound knowledge” that Deming declares managers
must master because they are the “why” behind all management decision
making and actions (Deming 2000; Vitalo 2017). These four domains of knowledge
- a theory of organization (the nature of systems),
- the concept of variation and its significance,
- a theory of knowledge, and
- the basic principles that reveal the nature of people and the source of
Should the Lean community seek to develop its fundamental premises about the
nature of people, human organizations, and commerce itself—Deming’s
thinking would be the place to start.
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1 See Porath (2014) for a
recent assessment of whether employees feel respected by their bosses. She
reports that a worldwide survey conducted by Harvard Business Review found
that “over half (54%) of employees claimed that they don’t regularly
get respect from their leaders.”
2 In 1947, General Douglas
MacArthur, the U.S. Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) instituted
a “reverse course” that undid earlier liberalization of worker
rights to form unions and union rights to bargain for labor’s goals. "The
first salvo involved MacArthur banning a general strike that had been called
for 1 February 1947. This signaled the beginning of the end for the radical
union movement as SCAP withdrew its support and encouraged the union-busting
tactics of Japanese corporations and the government” (Xiaohua 2010. p.
13). See also, Chomsky (1991) and Dower (1999).
3 While there has been an
effort to reshape Taylor’s view of workers positively, any reading of
his diary entries and private communications will dispel that revisionism.
Even in his book The Principles of Scientific Management, a document that his
biographer Kanigel (1997) reports Taylor as writing with an agenda to soften
his own anti-labor image with the public, he states: “It is well within
the mark to state that in nineteen out of twenty industrial establishments
the workmen believe it to be directly against their interests to give their
employers their best initiative, and that instead of working hard to do the
largest possible amount of work and the best quality of work for their employers,
they deliberately work as slowly as they dare while they at the same time try
to make those over them believe that they are working fast” (Taylor 1911,
page 11). Taylor’s view of human nature—at least that of the working
class—is identical to the assumptions of the producer-focused, profit-maximizing
approach to commerce described above.
construct of “flow” has nothing to do with the Lean construct of
flow in processes. Csikszentmihalyi’s construct concerns human phenomenology,
not explicit instrumental processes.
Published June 12, 2019 - © 2019 Vital Enterprises - Austin,
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