People and Process: Why Respect for People is not an optional part of Lean Thinking

lean three pillars

At the core of Lean are the Three Pillars: Increase Value, Remove Waste, and Respect People. I’ve written at length about the many ways to create value (Scalable Design Services, Stock/Custom Design Strategies) and remove waste (Value-Added/Non-Value-Added, 7 Forms of Waste, etc). However, Respect People is crucial to the success of Lean thinking.

Without respecting the expertise of employees who perform the work every day, you will likely overlook your most fertile source of the most practical and ready-to-implement improvement suggestions. In his recent GreenBiz piece “What can sustainability pros learn from Toyota's 'lean' process?” VP of Haley & Aldrich Ben Chandler offers that

By engaging people in the process of problem solving, it reduces resistance to the recommended solutions. Rather, participants want to see their ideas implemented and be successful because they are their ideas. Lean is inclusive; it is not done to people, it is done by people who feel empowered to create value.”

However, the solar industry is a young industry, mostly populated with small or start-up companies. Many perceive Lean thinking as a luxury only afforded by large companies. Whether your company size is two or two-thousand, if your people are a key pillar, are you spending time and energy developing them, listening to their suggestions, and empowering them to bring ideas forward? Or are you managing by the numbers from a safe distance? Lean thinking rejects the latter philosophy. It encourages management to engage with employees and process flow where the work is done. This is the “gemba attitude” that pushes us to Go And See. It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing numbers that need control. Do those numbers correspond to actual value creation?

In my recent discussion with Roger Willhite, host of the Disruption: Solar Energy podcast, I described on-boarding into off-grid solar of the late 90s/early 2000s like a guild system, like learning a martial art or a trade. You studied with a “master” as an “apprentice,” became a “journeyman,” and eventually became a “master” yourself and taught others. In many cases, as you began your career in solar and landed your first solar job, you spent most of your time figuring things out for yourself. Maybe you were the first installer or the first office manager, so you had to develop systems and processes and deal with situations with only your good judgment to serve you as they came up. Perhaps you had to navigate many of these situations alone.

If this sounds familiar, maybe you were the “latchkey” solar employee at some point, too. This is not unique to the solar industry. Small businesses all over the country in all kinds of industries are struggling to get by and get the job done with very little focus on company culture and personnel development. Lean thinking compels us to rethink this philosophy. A company where people matter most is a company where people can adopt and drive Lean thinking. It’s a culture that focuses on creating value, not repeating a series of steps in an information silo over and over.

The residential solar sector needs to focus on creating value. Redundant internal checks and QAs, onerous approval processes, and other systems setup out of distrust that pit one employee division against another erode value and erode respect. Employees who cannot see the value their company creates and how they fit into that puzzle will never think Lean and never drive value-creating initiatives. The ones who try and gain no traction will leave. Talent will bleed until those satisfied with the status quo remain. Is that the company you want to lead?

Consider how you can create a Lean thinking culture, no matter what size your company. You may have to look around immediately and make hard decisions about whether or not you have the right people in the right roles to foster this. Having the right talent with the right attitude goes the distance. You can never teach drive and passion. You can always teach skills.

So ask yourself, are you fostering a culture of Lean thinking, where you respect your people and the expertise that comes from the work they perform every day? Can you leverage this to create lasting value in your company and drive out waste?