Positive Incline Mike Burrows (@asplake) moving on up, positively

April 13, 2011

Crucial Conversations, Respect and Kanban

Filed under: Books,Kanban,leadership,lean,Values — Tags: , , , , , , , — Mike @ 4:21 pm

About a month ago, Benjamin Mitchell kicked off a thread on kanbandev called How does the Kanban Method reduce fear about role changes if change is emergent/unpredictable, mainly a discussion of what Kanban meant by “respect”. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time but I was not completely satisfied. Now that I have finished reading Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler) I have a much better sense of what I was missing from that conversation.

This excellent book is all about how to handle better those crucial conversations where opinions vary, the stakes are high, and emotions run strong. Highly recommended, and I have added the related books Crucial Confrontations and Influencer to my reading backlog too.

One (of many) very relevant part of the book explains how mutual respect helps to create a safe environment into which all participants in a crucial conversation can contribute. And without safety, the book argues, real dialog is impossible.  Where mutual respect needs to be created, focus on similarities instead of differences.

Now I can draw a parallel with what we do when we use Kanban to surface, investigate and address difficult process issues in organisations. Whether we are acting as internal staff or external facilitators, our task is to get the heart of things, to be “seekers after truth” (Senge-style). This requires dialog! Hence the “Respect for people” pillar of Lean, the “Respect current roles and responsibilities” of Kanban, and Deming’s “Problems are 94% in the system”. To these I could add some favourite phrases such as “it’s about the work”, “organisations have needs too”, and several more that move the focus away from the person to the work and to the broader system, creating safety. Speaking from recent personal experience I can say that they really help, together of course with the facilitative mindset that goes with them.

So when I hear hear managers or team members personalise their criticisms of others (“they’re so unprofessional”), see references (even in jest) to “evil management” or consultants speaking in ways that seem disrespectful of their clients, I cringe and (increasingly) I challenge. How do we improve anything by starting with blame? Instead, what reasonable explanations might there be for the behaviours we observe? What might we all be missing?

It’s easy to judge (and yes I see the irony: perhaps I’ve just been a little guilty of it myself here) but it doesn’t get us very far. Catch me making more serious infringements and you are invited to call me out 🙂


  1. I’m glad that my post niggled away at you, and you read Crucial Conversations. I really enjoyed that book!

    I think that the advice within Principles of the Kanban Method to “respect current roles, responsibilities and job titles” seems inconsistent with “change is emergent and cannot be predicted”. My concern is that the first message “your role, responsibility and titles are respected” may not an authentic statement. I think that the guidance could lead implementers to try and “sell” kanban and reduce people’s fear but in an inauthentic way, since it’s not clear to me the basis for the fear reduction (especially if you say you can’t predict what might happen in future).

    There’s a story in Authentic Conversations where the newspaper leader owns up to the fact that, rather than taking everyone’s fears about their jobs and the paper’s future away (which was his traditional approach) by pretending that they were unfounded or that he woulf fix them, he would instead be authentic with people and admit that he wasn’t able to do this. Authentic Conversations talks about this being more of an adult adult conversation (in the Transactional Analysis sense) rather than parentchild.

    My concern, which I didn’t think anyone addressed in my post to the kanbandev list, was that the Kanban Method guidance could be used ineffectively to try reduce people’s fears in order to start (sell) a kanban initiative, but in a way that wasn’t open about the fact that their roles responsibilities and titles may change and no one could promise them that it might not happen.

    I think the guidance could be improved if it described concretely what “respect” for roles, responsibilities and titles meant. I think it would be clearer if this was demonstrated concretely, with an example dialogue, such as:

    “Respect means we are not going to make you give up your role, responsibility or title straight away. We’d like to work with the team to figure out how things might be improved and we can’t necessarily predict what this might be (as it will emerge). We will work hard to ensure that your views are included and you are involved in the decision making [state here what type of decision making approach would be used – consensus/leader/other]. Now we realise that this may raise some concerns for you. Can you tell us what your concerns you might have with this approach? For example, does any of what we say seem contradictory, confusing or have gaps?”

    What I’m trying to illustrate with that example is being open about what is involved and the limits of the Kanban Method and inviting other’s to raise their concerns (inquire) into the logic.

    Do you share my concern about the possible inconsistency in the guidance or do you see it differently? Is there something in the guidance that would avoid it being used in-authentically?


    Comment by Benjamin Mitchell — April 13, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

  2. Hi Benjamin,

    Thank you for taking the time to leave a long comment.

    Yes I do see that risk. The example you give is a good one, but if we emphasise the “mutual” in “mutual respect” (the term used in Crucial Conversations) we might end up with a conversation that is more open and less one-sided than your script. Do I go into a situation with a preconceived plan to change particular roles? I haven’t done so far, though it’s possible that one day I might be given that brief. Approaching a situation like that with real openness would be a challenge indeed!


    Comment by Mike — April 13, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

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