Lean Job Guarantees are Practical – And Ethical

I came across a well-written expression of a lean manufacturing principle recently – in a column about ethics.

I am referring to the principle that employees who come up with process improvements that reduce staffing requirements should be promised that their jobs will not be eliminated as a result. This not only goes to the heart of the lean principle of respect for people, but is also simple, practical common sense – employees will not look for improvements if they believe doing so would jeopardize their jobs.

In “The Ethicist” column, which appears every Sunday in The New York Times magazine, writer Randy Cohen addresses issues raised by readers. Recently he received a question from a man who said he is a computer programmer in a large company in Pittsburgh, and who occasionally is asked by workers if he can automate repetitive tasks, such as data entry. The programmer said that while he can, “what happens next usually involves the person who wanted to save the company time and money looking for a box to hold their personal effects — and for a new job.”

In his reply, Cohen does not mention lean manufacturing. But he understands the principle involved here.

It would be grotesque to encourage employees to innovate and then, when they do, have a couple of goons rough them up and give them the old heave-ho. Even without the goons, it is not ethical to punish someone for doing just what you want (and urge) him to do. Someone who comes up with a useful idea should expect a bonus, not a pink slip. A management strategy that fires the most resourceful workers bears reconsidering.

All who contribute to the success of a venture should share in its rewards. At a minimum, the company must guarantee the job of so effective and dedicated an employee, perhaps shifting him or her to another position or cutting staff through attrition. If the company declines to take such steps, then you should give your co-workers an honest account of the possible consequences of their request.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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