Respect for People, Shingo Edition


“There are four purposes of improvement: easier, better, faster, and cheaper. These four goals appear in the order of priority.”

- Shigeo Shingo

The wisdom of this quote struck home recently, when I was writing my March newsletter on stretch goals. One problem with stretch goals, I believe, is that they focus on outcome metrics, and can therefore be gamed. The cost of a product or service is an incredibly important metric, but it, too, is an outcome metric, influenced by a huge variety of factors. Because of that, when a (non-lean) organization focuses on cost reduction, the most common first step is laying off people. The second most common step is downgrading the product specs, making the product both cheaper and “cheaper.” Neither of these approaches are good for the worker or for the customer.

What’s fascinating about this quote (to me, anyway) is that Shingo prioritizes worker health and safety above all else. First, the process must be made easier; then — and only then — should we worry about product quality, lead time, or cost. To be sure, making a process easier very often improves quality, speed, and cost, but that’s not the focus. The focus is on the people making the product or providing the service, not the product/service itself. Putting humans at the center of kaizen is another example of respect for people. As Mark Hamel pointed out with regards to kaizen at Toyota,

Occasionally, the worker generates a great idea around quality or working process improvement. But, the primary focus for the worker is typically around the “humanization of work. In other words, it starts with making the work EASIER.

And this jibes with what Jim Womack wrote all the way back in 2006: that instead of focusing on waste, we should focus on unevenness (mura) and over-burden (muri).

In most companies we still see the mura of trying to “make the numbers” at the end of reporting periods. (Which are themselves completely arbitrary batches of time.) This causes sales to write too many orders toward the end of the period and production mangers to go too fast in trying to fill them, leaving undone the routine tasks necessary to sustain long-term performance. This wave of orders — causing equipment and employees to work too hard as the finish line approaches — creates the “overburden” of muri. This in turn leads to downtime, mistakes, and backflows – the muda of waiting, correction, and conveyance. The inevitable result is that mura creates muri that undercuts previous efforts to eliminate muda.

Of course, if we make demand more even, and if we avoid overburdening people, we’re essentially making the work easier.

Lean is often referred to as a total business system. As I continue to learn more about it, I see more and deeper linkages between areas that I never realized before. This is one example: how kaizen — properly done — is not just a way to remove waste or make more money. It’s a profound expression of respect for people.

10 thoughts on “Respect for People, Shingo Edition

  1. I love the Shingo priorities. It’s another case of doing the right things leading to profits… profits being an end result as opposed to a primary lever (same goes for cost).

    Respect for People and Continuous Improvement are mutually beneficial. One leads to the other and the other is necessary for the other.

    Re-reading Deming, he talks about letting people have “pride in work.” I think that’s a very basic human need and letting people do quality work (not having stupid barriers in their way) is a core of “respect for people,” I think.

  2. I like Shingo’s priorities because it makes it clear as to what should be done first. In fact, if done easier, this indirectly causes it to become cheaper because the waste is taken out of the process. With waste out of the process more value added activities can be done with the current resources. Plus, easier means you are eliminating the things that cause the employees to get frustrated with their work which shows the Respect for People.

  3. Mark — I love your comment that “Respect for People and Continuous Improvement are mutually beneficial. One leads to the other and the other is necessary for the other.” I’m also constantly surprised at how far ahead of the curve Deming was — pride in one’s work is nearly the same thing that Dan Pink talks about in “Drive.”

    Matt — I don’t fully agree with you. Making a process easier might, in fact, add some waste to it…but with an easier and safer process, people have the ability to figure out *other* ways of taking out waste.

  4. Dan – I like the clarity and sequencing of Shingo which you brought up brilliantly. However, from my experience, organisations usually find it relatively easier to start with Muda…. however, If you focus on any M, the other 2 Ms benefit as a side effect. ( Buy 1, get 2 free) .. My advice is to ” Do something; start somewhere” ..thanks for the great article !!

  5. Dan,

    Great stuff. I’ve blogged about Mura and Muri a bit, too, as I believe they are under-appreciated significantly. There’s been a bit more about it in the blogosphere over the past year, which I think is a good step. The Womack article points out how critical they are, yet they are not frequently discussed.

    I loved this statement: “One problem with stretch goals, I believe, is that they focus on outcome metrics, and can therefore be gamed.” I have worked with far too many project and program managers who are more concerned with the report at the end of the month than the previous 30 days of execution that lead up to to it. “How can we make these numbers look better?” should be an operational question, not a spreadsheet exercise.

  6. Avijit — I’m inclined to agree with you insofar it’s better to start somewhere, even if it’s not the biggest problem or even the root cause. But I do worry that sometimes organizations will lose momentum and enthusiasm, and become discouraged, precisely because they’re ignoring the mura that creates muda.

    David — I’m going to tape this to my wall: “How can we make these numbers look better?” should be an operational question, not a spreadsheet exercise.”

  7. With all due respect to Shingo, I don’t believe these priorities apply in the same way to management and knowledge work. Unlike the laborer, we can choose easier work, easier methods, which can sacrifice quality, cost and delivery. In the physical world there is a stronger correlation between easier labor and better quality, speed and lower cost. This is not so true in the work of management. I find that taking on what is hard is what makes a knowledge worker better, what makes a manager successful. It is the difference between thinking of one’s work as a set of tasks or as a set of responsibilities and outcomes. Once we have found the easiest ways to achieve these outcomes, we are then faced with the choice of coasting as managers and engineers – taking advantage of having made the work easy – or of taking on the hard assignment and facing the next challenge. This is true respect for people.

  8. Jon! Your comment — as always — screws up my day’s schedule, because I have to sit down for awhile and think of an intelligent response….

    I’m going to push back, though, and argue that we can still applies Shingo’s thinking to managerial work. For example, we can make the process of closing the monthly books or doing performance reviews easier without compromising the integrity/quality of the work itself.

    You’re absolutely right in saying that “taking on what’s hard makes a knowledge worker successful.” But we need to distinguish between something that’s intrinsically difficult intellectually (splitting the atom, developing new coaching techniques, designing a new compensation structure), and something that’s difficult because it’s embedded in a busted process.

    I think Shingo would say that making things easier is about the process, not the conceptual content — and in that regard, his argument does apply to knowledge workers as well.

  9. I think you proved my point. Month end closing and reviews are tasks, not true management responsibilities. Knowledge workers, managers and creative types would probably say they add value via conceptual content rather than working the process.

    Successful management involves simplification to the point of working oneself out of that particular job, so that a subordinate can take over. That can put a manager in the more challenging state of either finding more value-added work or risking being seen as deadwood. Not an easy position.

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