Lean Management, Respect for People and Google

An interesting article about Google in the July 2 issue of Forbes prompts some thoughts about the meaning of the lean concept of respect for people – and how your demonstrate your commitment to that concept.

            Generally, most articles I read about respect for people (and a few I’ve written) are based on the idea that respect for people means respect for their intelligence and abilities. Lean discards the old paradigm of know-all bosses ordering unthinking robots and assumes that what’s best for a company is having employees who are thinking and creative, who contribute to solving a company’s problems and improving its operations.

            That is certainly true. But respect for people can mean more than that. It also includes providing employees with good management, interesting work and fair compensation, as well being attuned to employee satisfaction and morale. Building and sustaining a culture in which employees believe in management’s commitment to respect for people is one of the great challenges of lean management.

            The Forbes article (you have to become a member to access it online) notes that a growing number of employees are leaving Google because of the money. No, they are not underpaid; quite the opposite. Stock options granted since Google went public three years ago are becoming vested, and large numbers of Google employees are rolling in dough:


            Insiders figure there are at least 700 people roaming the halls worth a minimum of $5 million, many of them worth multiples of that.


            The article also notes that Google has grown from 350 employees five years ago to 13,000 today. Craig Silverstein, the company’s director of technology, says it is “harder for the people at the top to keep things straight.”

            Silverstein, who has made more than $100 million in Google stock, offers an even more fascinating comment when he says that for veterans like him, 'economically, you are volunteering to be here.' He stays because of his interest in solving hard computational problems with other smart colleagues.

            But the article, by Quentin Hardy, notes:


            Not everyone feels the same way. Veterans complain of wasted effort on overlapping projects and disaffection with endless work on glorified ad schemes. Bismarck Lepe left almost immediately after his options fully vested on their four-year anniversary. Colin Wong, who started at Google in November 2002, quit in December to do angel investing in Seattle. He left over 'the boredom of just looking at Internet advertising.'


            The brain drain is producing some positive effects for Google because some of those leaving are starting new companies – which use Google technology.

            However, it doesn’t appear that Google necessarily intended that to happen. And Google apparently struggles with the challenge of coming up with ways to keep people – and determining who it most wants to keep. Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president of people operations (now there’s a title) is quoted as saying the company


            …is prepared to see a number of people move on and has identified the people it feels it must keep, particularly in Google's core business of Internet search. The company has an advantage there, as search now requires vast computing resources that no startup seems able to match and Google is still in a good place to address the intellectual challenges of making search better. A core of some 200 search veterans are said to be rich and happy where they are.

            Some of Google's marquee names on the business side have been given new chores to keep them happy: Sheryl Sandberg, who developed Google's ad business, now also helps run its charitable foundation, while whiz salesman Omid Kordestani is heading Google's international expansion.

The company has continually tinkered with its incentives for people to stay. Early on Larry Page and Sergey Brin gave 'Founders' Awards' in cash to people who made significant contributions. The handful of employees who pulled off the unusual Dutch auction public offering in August 2004 shared $10 million. The idea was to replicate the windfall rewards of a startup, but it backfired because those who didn't get them felt overlooked. 'It ended up pissing way more people off,' says one veteran.

Google rarely gives Founders' Awards now, preferring to dole out smaller executive awards, often augmented by in- person visits by Page and Brin. 'We are still trying to capture the energy of a startup,' says Bock.

            How do you best demonstrate respect for people? In your own experiences, what has worked best, and what hasn’t? Is losing people inevitable, particularly in a growing organization? Tell us your stories.


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