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A Section from "The Continuous Improvement Development Guide"

Volume 2: Committing >

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Develop Trust (Principle)

Basic Section Information

Think about what trust is. It is, in effect, a shortcut. It means that you have faith in something, or someone, and have stopped double-checking on all expectations.

If you trust your mechanic, you stop visiting different shops to get a problem looked at. If you trust a salesperson, you stop spending as much time verifying claims. If you trust your neighbors, you might feel comfortable leaving the garage door open while you are in the back yard.

The same holds true at work. If you trust your employees, you don’t need to check up on them as much. If you trust your vendors, you can give them access to do replenishment in your facility. The list goes on. Trust improves efficiency and effectiveness.


Read the section “Build Relationships” before this one.

Section Details

Estimated Time for Section: N/A. (Ongoing principle)

Difficulty: High. While people are, by nature, social, they are also wary. Developing trust can be a challenge, especially where relationships have been strained.

Risk: High.


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Lean Lego Flow Simulation

Detailed Section Information

Because well-run organizations operate with very small safety nets and a great deal of autonomy, managers need to be able to trust their employees. Likewise, employees will be asked to do a great deal of things outside of their comfort zone, increasing the chances that they will make mistakes. Further, they will see that the improvements they make could potentially eliminate their jobs. Employees must trust their bosses if they are to fully commit to a continuous improvement culture.

The problem is that most organizations have only cursory levels of trust.

Definition of Trust

Trust is defined as faith or belief in the truth, accuracy, or reliability of someone or something. This could be, for example, believing that a person is honest or that an organization is capable of delivering a product on time.

The Trust Principle

While the abbreviated principle is “develop trust”, the full principle is “developing trust reduces relationship costs.”

Benefits of Trust

As indicated in the principle above, there is an overhead cost to every interaction between people. There is the cost of making the decision about who to talk to when there is a problem. There is the cost of actually making contact. There is the cost that goes into the amount of negotiation that is required. There is the cost to following up on things. There is a cost associated with the dissatisfaction that comes from being let down by another person.

The biggest benefit of trust is that it reduces all of those costs.

  1. People are generally more satisfied in a trusting environment, so job satisfaction costs are reduced. Turnover costs drop, and people, especially those operating with the economy, tend to be more productive.
  2. Communication takes less time. People are more responsive to requests, get back to others sooner, and require less negotiation when they trust each other.
  3. People spend less time checking. The more you trust someone, the less time you invest in checking their background or checking their progress.
  4. People are more willing to give up time. If a person or team is asked for help, they are more likely to provide it if they feel that the requester will reciprocate down the road. Without trust, if they are unwilling to provide that help, costs go up.



Drivers of Trust

The level of trust between two entities is driven by many factors. Some of these key drivers include:

  1. History. Few things impact trust as much as previous experience. Breaches in trust are very hard to overcome. Whether conscious or subconscious, people keep score. This history is not just limited to the interactions between the two people in question. If one person has a reputation of not being trustworthy, people consider that in their relationships.
  2. Having a voice. When people have a way to express themselves without fear, they trust those around them more. If they feel like speaking up will result in sanctions, they’ll bite their tongues. An important point for leaders: it doesn’t matter if there really are consequences for voicing opinions. It is the perception of consequences that matter.
  3. A sense of belonging. As a rule, people tend to trust those that they bond with more than strangers. This comes from both familiarity and shared goals.
  4. Feeling valued. Feeling valued builds trust. If a person knows that their contributions are important to the team, they tend to feel more secure in the relationship.
  5. A sense of equity is important to people. They need to see that rules are applied evenly, and that managers don’t play favorites. That’s not to say everyone has to be treated equally, but there should be an obvious reason why some people might have earned extra privileges. It is also important that those privileges be open to everybody who meets the same criteria.
  6. Opportunities to learn and grow. People need to see a cause and effect in their advancement within the company. They need to know that if they work hard, they will be rewarded. They also see these opportunities as an investment in themselves. They know that companies would not spend their resources on people they are not committed to.
  7. Autonomy. People should not automatically be given free rein to make changes. But if they prove themselves, they should be allowed to push the envelope on the decisions they can make on their own. The key point here is that trust is reciprocal. People tend to trust those who trust them.
  8. Security. People should not be afraid for their job. If they see those around them getting in trouble for making mistakes or losing their job due to productivity gains, there will be no trust. This sense of safety is not just related to ongoing employment. They need to feel like their benefits, perks, assignments, etc. are all protected.
  9. Sense of purpose. People have to feel like what they are doing is important. When they believe they have a respected place on a team, they are more likely to trust their teammates. They also trust those who share their sense of purpose more than those whose motives are questionable.

How to Build Trust

Building trust is an ongoing process. There is no quick-fix to creating an environment where people have great confidence in one another. The following list will take significant effort, but the benefits of the resulting trust make these items well worth the effort.

  1. Focus on communication.

Better communication is an obvious addition to this list, but it is one that is easier said than done. Improving personal communication skills is the first step. Take a class, get a mentor, use a checklist, and get feedback from your team to refine your personal communication skills. The bottom line is that leaders must cultivate open discussions about problems to convince people that it is safe to talk about issues.

But great communication needs more than that individual effort. It needs a strong infrastructure in place. Stand-up meetings, daily management boards, prominently posted metrics & countermeasures, and monthly operations reviews all turn communication into processes that can be improved. Regular communication goes a long way towards creating trust.

  1. Set clear expectations.

Teams trust leaders more when expectations are clear. It keeps them from being surprised with extra work, or from feeling like they were unfairly in trouble for something they didn’t know.

Some expectations are quantified in the form of metrics. When there is, for example, a clear, reasonable productivity goal, a team knows exactly what they will need to do throughout the day. They won’t trust their leadership if every day ends with the team feeling like they did a good job but the boss was still disappointed. Teams should operate with a handful of key metrics that guide behavior and sync up managerial and employee expectations.

Other expectations are behavioral. Tardiness standards, for example, are fairly clear. Most team members don’t distrust bosses who discipline those who show up late. This expectation is clear. Other expectations, though, may create mistrust. People hate being blindsided. A manager must have expectations that are known to the employee and are consistently enforced. Of course, not all of expectations have to be written down. But those that are not should be crystal clear to employees.

The best way to develop trust is to do regular one-on-one sessions with team members. Highlight missed expectations with a plan to get back on track. Focus on teaching rather than reprimanding.

  1. Make sure that corporate values exist.

I once worked with an organization that intentionally paid bills to small vendors late, and then just didn’t pay the late fees that were assessed. They had a financial metric that was intended to get them paying as late as possible, essentially getting a float loan on all their purchases. The manager knew that the small vendors relied on their business too much to press the issue.

That behavior was clearly (at least to me) unethical. The right way would have been to negotiate longer payment terms rather than make an agreement and intentionally break it. The problem was that the employees saw this corporate sanctioned poor behavior. It is hard to really trust an organization that sees no problem with this sort of activity. It makes them wary of being turned on down the road.

Do an assessment of corporate practices and be relentless at stomping out questionable behavior. It is similar to the broken glass theory of policing. Once there is a foothold for undesirable behavior, bigger issues are more likely to follow.

  1. Shift from hierarchy to autonomy.

The more a person is trusted, the more they trust. It is mutual. If an employee is granted the authority to make decisions, and is not hammered for wrong ones, they will reciprocate.

The key is to train the employee well and coach them on making decisions of increasing importance. This act of training furthers trust, as people feel safer when they are invested in. Autonomy also requires communication so team members have the necessary information to make good decisions. This act of preparing a team member to act autonomously, like training, also increases trust.

A good place for managers to start is to look at recurring decisions. Most of those can be turned into processes that team members can then do. For example, with good daily management, team members will know how many people will be needed to complete the work. They can adjust the staffing on their own and shift to alternative work (supporting other departments, projects, etc.)

  1. Reward achievements.

Rewarding team members for desirable behaviors enhances trust on many layers. First of all, it requires clear expectations. Reinforcing those expectations through rewards confirms them and strengthens trust.

There is, especially when rewards are public, a community benefit to trust. Seeing someone else rewarded for clearly desirable behavior reinforces that the company is serious about what it wants.

  • Don’t confuse silence or even verbal agreement with trust. When things are bad, people won’t speak up, or they will do the ‘head nod’ agreement regardless of how they really feel.

There is no threshold that you will cross where you can say, “yep, there’s trust in the company.” What you will find, though, is that interactions take less time and problems get resolved more quickly.

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