Much has already been said on this topic, including an extensive discussion in this blog. So, when Frederick Stimson Harriman launched one in the TPS Principles and Practice group on LinkedIn, I was wondering whether I would learn anything. 62 comments later, I would say yes.
The contributors include Toyota alumni Bob Bennett, Dave Condinho, Luis Javier Sosa Gomez, and Christoph Roser, as well as many others who shared their personal experience outside of Toyota, including Jay Bitsack, John Davis, Kris Hallan, Rachel Inman, Emmanuel Jallas, Ram Parthasarathy, Paul Quesada, Łukasz Rogatka, Patrick Ross, William Ryan, and Stuart See.
Frederick's question was:
"How have you experienced the TPS Principle: 'Respect for the Person?'" in the context of "criticism [of Toyota] in Japan and in other countries, with complaints of unfair treatment of labor, and a domineering stance towards suppliers that limits their growth and attempts to deprive them of their right to negotiate prices."
In response, there is what has already been said but is worth restating, personal stories from the shop floor, and new perspectives on the topic. Below are the excerpts from the discussion that I found most enlightening, as well as my own, edited inputs. I still recommend checking out the complete thread on LinkedIn.
Following are a few themes around which I felt this material could be organized:
Testimonials of Toyota Alumni
During my five years at Toyota I was never blamed for anything, and rarely was anybody else. When I worked for other companies in Europe, not a week went by without someone trying to blame me (or anybody else but them) for something. But then, I also had a very good boss at Toyota, which probably also makes a big difference.
- During my last visit to Toyota (Motomachi Plant) I was told that there are very minor differences in the uniform according to employees position, e.g., a regular operator has a gold rim on his cap, whereas his team leader has not. But I don't know if this is for all Toyota plants or only Motomachi. In any case, the difference was minor. BTW I found it interesting that the "lower" position got the gold rim. In the Military it is usually the other way round I guess that already tells something about the value of the shop floor operator at Toyota.
- According to literature, at Toyota it is quite possible for employees to convince their managers away from their preferred option A to another option/solution B. However, a contact close to Toyota told me that this is changing. If the manager opposes a project, the project leader now prefers to wait 2 or 3 years until a new boss comes around in order to start the project anyway. This is even worse at other Toyota Group companies. My source said that it seems that Toyota is hiring more "selfish" people. The exception seems to be Denso, which for that reason reduces its exchange of managers with other Toyota groups. But as I said, this is not a personal observation of mine, but of a contact close to Toyota.
Just remembered something else I read about Ohno: In my view Ohno is the main driver behind TPS. Regarding respect for humanity, however, according to Reingold (Toyota - A Corporate History, 1999, pg 41f) Ohno terrified his colleagues, gave impossible tasks, criticized, yelled at them, and kicked them. Many tried to avoid him as much as possible. Initially nobody wanted to cooperate with him, and he got lots of resistance. He caused people so much trouble so they could not sleep at night.
Maybe you could call it tough love.
If Ohno would have been a nice sweet guy, there would not be a TPS as we know it (or maybe not even a Toyota at all). In my view, respect can still be demanding, but this takes skill. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about Ohno to say if his approach was skilled and respectful or more towards abusive. In any case, he got results.
"Respect for Humanity" versus "Respect for People"
Aretha Franklin demanding Respect
My first reaction was that, as explained before, the TPS principle is not "respect for the person" or "respect for people" but "respect for humanity" (人間性尊重, ningenseisoncho). To me, this means paying due consideration to human nature when designing work in order to take full advantage of employees' brains as well as muscles, while protecting the output from operator fatigue, forgetfulness, or the power of habit. This is very different from being polite.
Frederick pointed out a 2008 article by Jon Miller on the subject, where he essentially makes the same point:
"The phrase 人間尊重 is not rare within the CSR (corporate social responsibility) statements of major Japanese corporations. The word 人間 means 'human', 'humans' or 'people' and 尊重 can be translated as 'respect.' But the phrase used at Toyota is a bit different. It is 人間性尊重. The observant reader or student of Asian languages may recognize the extra character making 'human' or 'people' into 'humanity' or 'humanness.' [...] So our current understanding of "respect for people" must be broader than simply respecting the rights of every person within a free society or to honor and respect our elders or our peers. To be wordy, the literal meaning of Toyota's phrase 人間性尊重 is 'holding precious what it is to be human' and once could say 'valuing humanity' or even 'respect for humanity' but 'respect for people' in my view is pithy but does not convey the full weight of these words in the original language."
Kris Hallan took a stab at clarifying this distinction as follows:
"The difference between these two definitions/translations might boil down to this: I can be very respectful to an individual person and everyone can agree on the amount of respect I show...while I lay them off for a lack of work. In that situation I can show tremendous respect for the individual by listening, being honest, forthright, and sincere. At the same time I completely disrespect what makes that person human by ignoring all of the diverse capabilities and potential that person inherently possesses. By laying them off, I disregard the potential for that individual to earn their pay, while being oh so respectful about it."
The following was advice to factory managers: "to assure good feeling and good understanding, while guarding against too much lenity on the one hand, to be careful to avoid too much severity on the other, to be firm and decisive in all his measures, but not overbearing and tyrannical -- not too distant and haughty, but affable and easy of access, yet not too familiar." This exhortation to show respect for people is from James Montgomery's "The Carding and Spinning Masters" (Glasgow, 1832), quoted by Alfred Chandler in The Visible Hand.
The language is quaint, but the substance is not far from the kind of advice today's would-be managers receive on working with subordinates. You have to show them respect as people, but that is not what I understand Toyota's "respect for humanity" to be about.
Being human means being able to learn skills, sense your environment, apply logic to solve problems, and create. Showing respect for humanity means being aware of the unique capabilities of people and putting them to use. Courtesy may be a means to this end, but it is not the end.
Corporations and Philosophy
Mission statements and other expressions of corporate philosophy need to be taken with a grain of salt. Philosophy is best written by individuals with no commercial stake in the way their ideas are received.
What is really behind the emphasis on "respect for humanity"? Clearly, the practices of US car makers post World War II did not fully leverage the potential of the work force. They have been variously described as the "check your brains at the door," command-and-control, or "management knows best."
And what resources did tiny Toyota have to compete with these behemoths? The brainpower of its people is high on the list. Finding a way to leverage it was a key to competing with organizations that didn't value their own.
It's nothing philosophical; it's only business.