Log in | Register | Contact Us | View Cart


A Section from "The Continuous Improvement Development Guide"

Volume 2: Committing >

No comments

Build Relationships (Principle)

Basic Section Information

It’s just business.” That has to be one of the all-time worst expressions to come from the corporate world. The intent is to make people feel better about themselves when they are hurting others in order to get ahead. If you read into those three little words, the meaning is that the people that are affected by decisions are irrelevant.

The truth is, though, that unless you have some massive advantage at your disposal, you can’t get away with treating people badly for very long. And even if you do have some sort of leverage, it is still fundamentally wrong to mistreat people. Ethics and morals should not change because of the strength of a balance sheet.

But the need to build relationships in continuous improvement goes far beyond personal values. Because so much waste gets removed from a Lean organization, there is very little margin for error. That means that when a problem occurs, teamwork takes on a completely different level of importance when compared to a typical organization.


There are no specific prerequisites for this section. You should, however, be starting on the “Committing” phase of your journey.

Section Details

Estimated Time for Section: Ongoing principle.

Difficulty: High. Adhering to this principle often takes fundamental shifts in behaviors.

Risk: High. Getting this principle wrong means that people won’t be able to work together well. It may not affect teams significantly early on, but the as you try to integrate more advanced cultural changes, you’ll see problems.


If you like this reference guide, please help us spread the word about it!

This section of our Practical Guide to Continuous Improvement has online content only. Please subscribe to our member updates to get notified when more section options become available.

Detailed Section Information

Most people underestimate the impact that good relationships have on the bottom line. This is amplified in an organization that focuses on continuous improvement. With little waste, problems must be dealt with immediately or the organization can screech to a halt. That only happens when people are able to work well together.

“Build relationships” is the rule associated with the principle that strong, positive relationships are good for business. A successful business management system has many moving parts. Those parts—the different groups of people with their own needs and personal objectives—have to work together effectively or the system will fail. While the impact of these relationships is most profound in the later phases of a Lean transition, the groundwork for these relationships has to be laid early.

Why Do Relationships Matter?

The short of it is that people are social creatures. We gravitate toward each other, even if it is subconscious. Watch children in a park. If two kids show up separately, they will almost invariably end up playing together before they leave. Adults sitting next to each other on an airplane can strike up a conversation that lasts several hours, even if they never met each other before. The bottom line is that people tend to be less happy when they feel isolated from each other.

But more than just supporting how we are hardwired, positive relationships affect job satisfaction, which in turn, affects profit. Satisfied employees mean less turnover and happier customers. It also means better health as job stress can take a toll on people.

Examples of Relationships in a Lean Organization

  • Managers and teams. In a Lean organization, team members are expected to make decisions on their own. They will be asked to take the initiative. If they work well with their boss and feel like an important part of the team, they will make better decisions and go the extra mile. If they are simply at work gathering up a paycheck, team members will have a more zombielike approach to their job.
  • Team members and team members. In an organization that focuses on continuous improvement, the boundaries of responsibilities become blurred. When one team member finishes his work, he will shift his efforts to help someone who still has tasks left to do. When a worker on an assembly line encounters issues, the rest of the team needs to support her rather than become angry at the delay. Team members must know who to go to for help, and must be willing to share knowledge. None of these things happens readily unless people care about each other.
  • Frontline teams and support organizations. When you’re making constant changes, you need constant support. The IT group will be on speed dial if you are in an office environment. If you work on the shop floor, you will wear a groove along the path to the facilities and tooling teams. The more positive you make those interactions, the better service you will get. The support teams clearly, by definition, are there to support you. How enthusiastically they fulfill that mission depends upon how well everyone gets along.
  • Relationships with vendors. Many business relationships are adversarial. There is a perception that the only way to do better is to get a bigger slice of the pie. But that means that the vendors you’re working with get less. When you create a strong relationship, you tend to find ways to make the pie grow faster rather than spend your energy arguing over a few extra morsels.
  • Relationships with customers. The way an organization views its relationship with its customers will drive its behaviors. Make no mistake: a company has to make money from these relationships or it will go out of business. The thing is, though, that it is not actually businesses working with businesses. It is people in one business working with people in another business. If you make it easier for those people to work with you, they will see additional value in the relationship. The more positive you make interactions, the more you will get the benefit of the doubt and support when problems come up. This goes both ways. When your customers have problems that are independent of your company’s actions, you can often still help them out. They will remember those sorts of things.
  • Relationships with the community. The better a reputation of the company, the more likely people will be to do business with it. In this age of social media, there are no secrets. Every interaction has the opportunity to go viral. When an organization acts in a way that shows it values local relationships, the likelihood of those interactions being positive is much higher.
  • Relationships within the industry. The world is a much more competitive place now than it has ever been. It is also a much more fluid place. People are changing jobs at a faster clip than ever. Competitors join forces on projects and may even supply each other with components. And global competition makes the margin for error incredibly small. It is nearly impossible to operate in a vacuum. The Lean community is a great example of this. People readily share knowledge because they know everyone benefits. If you don’t participate on both sides of relationship, giving and taking, eventually you will be excluded from the exchange of knowledge.

This list is by no means complete. There are a myriad of othe potential relationships. The point is that when you break down barriers, eliminate waste, create aggressive goals, focus on customers, partner with vendors, push yourself to learn, and organize by value stream, old ways of interacting will not be sufficient. Without strong relationships between people, you’ll never be able to thrive in a Lean culture.

Tips for Building Relationships

We will talk specifically about trust and respect for people as separate principles, even though both of those play a huge role in building relationships. The focus of this principle is more about the mechanics of relationship building.

  • Know who you are working with. It sounds simple, but it is surprising how often people don’t know more than a handful of individuals at the organization. Make a point of introducing yourself to everyone you encounter. When having a meeting, don’t assume that people know each other. It is impossible to develop a relationship without first meeting a person.
  • Use people’s names when you talk to them. The more personal you make interactions, the deeper the relationship becomes. It also helps you remember names over time. The flow of interactions between people can be sporadic. You may work with a handful of people closely on a project for a few days and then have very little contact for six months or a year. The more you reinforce the relationship within that window, the stronger it will be when you cross paths again down the road.
  • Make every encounter count. This is especially true with customers, but it is also applicable in all relationships. Every time you interact with someone, your internal balance scale is affected. The contact either adds to the positive side or to the negative side. When you have limited time with a person, you want to make sure you put as much as possible on that positive side. Unfortunately, the negative stuff will last longer than the good interactions.
  • Introduce people. The bigger your network, the more impactful your relationships will be in your organization. That’s not to say be one of those people who collects friends on Facebook or links in with everyone on other social sites. What it means is that you should not just be meeting people when you need their help. The more frequently you introduce others to the people you know, the more likely they will be to return the favor. Sometimes you even have to go out of your way to do this. If you are a supervisor and are going to the tooling department to pick up a fixture, bring the person who will be using it. It might seem wasteful to have two people do a simple task like that. But down the road, the person will be able to make the trek effectively on her own.
  • Take notes. Write down important facts about people. It sounds a little cheesy, but knowing somebody’s birthday makes them feel like they matter. If you record that they ski, rewarding them with a free pass to the local ski area the next winter will be a pleasant surprise. Giving a person their favorite doughnut on the day of their five-year work anniversary will make them feel especially appreciated.
  • Relationships work both ways. Don’t be one of the people who only focuses on those above them in the organization or the people who have something that is needed. If everyone behaved like that, those people you need help from will also be looking in the opposite direction. Give more than you take and you will find people giving more to you.
  • Never ever ever ever ever gossip. Assume that whatever you say about someone will make it back to them. But is not to say you have to sugarcoat everything. Just make sure that the negative stuff all focuses on fact and is free of commentary. Feel free, however, to make as many positive personal comments as you’d like behind someone’s back.
  • Be a positive person. I know. This is easier said than done. Just think about the people that you like to be around. I doubt most of them are chronically surly and irritable.
  • Be competent. When people rely upon you, the manner in which you approach your job has a much bigger impact on them. If you don’t take it seriously and don’t work to improve yourself, you will find yourself letting them down. No matter how nice and positive you are, if you can’t do your job well, your relationship with the people who rely on you will eventually sour.
  • Embrace diversity. For this tip, I am not talking about cultural or racial diversity. Obviously that is important, but what I mean here is that you should find relationships outside of your own department or field. Engineers tend to eat lunch with other engineers. People from the same department sit together at company meetings. You get to spend all of your time with the people you work with regularly. Take advantage of opportunities to interact with those who have different responsibilities than you have.
  • Refine your soft skills. We work on technical skills and take computer classes. Most people seldom address their social side. Figure out what your weaknesses are and work on them. If your emails come off like a third grader, take a professional writing class. Ask trusted confidants how you are perceived, and be open to the feedback. The point is that strong relationships don’t happen by accident. You have to work at being a good partner.
  • Address your body language. The way you stand and how receptive you appear to people affect your relationships. If you seem to be open to their communication, the relationship will get stronger. If you tend to stand with your arms folded, or don’t turn away from your computer screen, or walk away during a conversation, the relationship will be strained.
  • Show appreciation. When people do things for you make sure to thank them. Be specific about how they helped you. And follow-up with them. If they help you with the problem, let them know again few weeks later how well things have been going.
  • Don’t overstep your bounds. This one takes some finesse. A strong continuous improvement culture is built upon openness. But that doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to give feedback on something that is not relevant.
  • Don’t overstep your boundaries. People spend a lot of time at work. Nobody wants to feel infringed upon. This can be as simple as hogging up common areas, allowing your items to overflow onto your neighbor’s desk, or even talking excessively loud in your cubicle. Be a good neighbor.
  • Listen more than you talk. And listen actively. Repeat back what you heard. Stay focused on the person is talking. And leave your cell phone in your pocket during real-life conversations.

  • Negative interactions affect people longer and more deeply than positive ones do. A single bad interaction can undo years of positive ones, and take extensive work to overcome.
  • Relationships are not passive. You have to make an active effort to develop them.
  • Be careful not to be a ‘user’, or someone who only works on relationship they get something out of.

  • Positive relationships make people more satisfied with their job, which, in turn, drives profit.
  • Strong relationships don’t just happen. You have to actively manage them.
  • Continuous improvement cultures thrive when relationships are strong. The margin for error is low, and the demand for teamwork is high.

Every organization can show the signs of the good relationship when things are going well. You will know that you have truly mastered the art of getting along and working together when there are problems.

If you have sowed the seeds of strong relationships, you’ll have a lot of emotional capital to spend during periods of turmoil. The truth is, good relationships are easy to spot by outsiders. If your organization has mastered it, observers will let you know.

Supporting Content and Additional Information

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Copyright © 2009-2016, Velaction Continuous Improvement, LLC | Legal Information