top of page
happy at work.png

3 Ways to Unlock Human Potential in Lifeless Lean Operations




Instincts, needs, peace of mind, order, freedom, resentment, aggression, discontent, fear, happiness, perception, behavior, worthlessness, unrest, resistance to change. Does your Lean operation not give a response to these words? Better to check if it is still alive.

An operation like manufacturing, for example, is kind of a laboratory where we have to solve problems that we can easily avoid in our private lives. Company goals force us to cooperate and solve the problems together with others before we get to know each other. Additionally, we should solve the problems under the pressure of a man-made concept: time.

Time constraints shorten the time needed to know each other, and KPI's ruthlessly start testing our relationships. Except in organizations where employee well-being is one of time-bound KPI's, these conditions lead to feelings of discontent.

Defining discontent only as resistance to change is naive and incapable of identifying effective countermeasures. Besides, such a definition is blaming, which leads to further negative feelings on the employee side. You feel discontent when you need to understand something but can not. How do you feel when your discontent is labeled as resistance?

 The survey research conducted by Harvard Business Review with the participation of 26.000 employees in 31 companies, shows the fundamental traits of organizational effectiveness. Out of the 17 most important traits, the top eight are decision making and information related. (Click here for details.)

This study shows the effectiveness of merely asking people what the reasons of discontent are, instead of theoretical and intellectual analysis. What we see as resistance from outside is simply discontent inside that is caused by disregarding the basic needs of employees. Efforts to solve this problem from outside create the problem itself.

"We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”  A.Einstein.




What are the needs of employees?

People have different definitions of the meaning of life and happiness. Still, we know that the desire for happiness drives human behavior in general. Many of our actions seem closely linked to this drive. We all avoid pain and seek pleasure. Through our experiences, we learn that it is not an excellent strategy to increase our contact with resources of pleasure.

Firstly, resources of pain have much more variety and availability than resources of pleasure. Secondly, the happiness we achieve by pleasure is short-lived. Finally, some of our actions result in more pain than pleasure because of disapproval of our conscience or society.

An alternative strategy is to reduce unhappiness by staying away from sources of pain. This strategy seems more effective because pain lasts longer than pleasure. It even repeats itself when remembered later. However, when exaggerated to escape from our social contacts, this strategy shrinks our existence, our footprint in the world.

peace of mind fro art.png


Although some people seek happiness in the workplace, most of the employees adopt a strategy to find peace of mind at work. What brings peace of mind differs from person to person and therefore, finding a common way of satisfying everybody in the organization is not possible.


However, it is very possible to detect common factors that damage peace of mind in general.


Among so many human needs, I believe three fundamental ones are often unsatisfied at the workplace.


3 needs of human:

1. Survival

The human brain is hardwired to stay alive. This is a selfish instinct that continuously motivates us to look for opportunities to increase our chances of survival. When selfishness develops to an extent to disregard the needs of others, we see this instinct exactly as Nietzsche formulates: Will to power.

 Survival instinct drives us to seek better living conditions, better education, and healthcare for ourselves and our beloved ones. Do we stop when we ensure these conditions that keep us alive?

Every people have the right and willingness to satisfy his or her needs too, at upper levels of Maslow's pyramid: Love, esteem, and self-actualization. When the attempts to fulfill these needs are blocked by the social environment, dissatisfaction follows.


2. Belongingness

People indeed want to belong to groups, however, it is not the main reason why people started living in complex organizations. We know that our ancestors were keen on their freedom and preferred to live in small groups. The scarcity of food and the need for security motivated them to come together. Increased conflicts and dissatisfaction ever since shows that they have willingly relinquished part of their freedom in exchange for the advantages offered by the society.

The questions “to what extent social order brings happiness” and “to what extent technology brings happiness” are relatively new questions that will be replied by time.

I participated in training in leadership long years ago. The instructor asked, "Why are you working?"


We were about 30 engineers in the room and I was shocked about the responses like "to develop myself, to learn more, because this is an excellent company". I was the last to reply and I said I was working for money.


Of course, money was not the only reason for me, but I am sure it was an important reason for the others too. Why then, young engineers think it’s improper to express it openly? Can we neglect the effects of the toxic business culture?

A high-quality society is indispensable to bring one's potential to life. However, fake relations grow whenever we disregard that employment is a contract that provides income in exchange for time, talent and effort.

3.  Respect

"Always treat people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end."

Immanuel Kant

By being ends in themselves, Kant emphasizes the power of rational choice. Every human being has the capacity to reason and value things separate from instincts.


This capacity is, therefore, the capacity to respect because we respect things that we evaluate by our reasoning and find valuable.

Autonomy, according to Kant, is the second important capacity of a human, which is the capacity to think rationally and choose what is right/good for them and act accordingly, independent of external forces. Every human being is capable of evaluating (determining the value of) and shaping the meaning of his or her life.

The power of rational choice and autonomy are the two basic traits that set our worth apart from other creatures. Every person possesses this worth independent from what a person does or what others do.

"a human being regarded as a person, that is, as the subject of morally practical reason, is exalted above all price…as an end in himself, he possesses a dignity by which he exacts respect for himself from all other beings in the world”      Immanuel Kant

We need to use the skills, effort, and time of employees to arrive at our goals. However, we should always keep in mind that the foundation of this working relationship is a bilateral contract. We have no right to suppress their needs at the expense of our needs.

Disregarding these facts is the root cause of failures in Lean transformations and other change programs. We owe respect to every human being and ourselves because we all have the power of rational choice and autonomy. If we use employees just as tools for fulfilling our purposes, they can’t fulfill their capacities. Thus, they can’t realize their potential. If we disrespect their worth, we can’t deserve our self-respect.


What happens when these needs are not satisfied?

I know it isn’t so easy for us, as engineers, to formulate cause and effect relationships in psychology. However, we can give it a try.

 The performance of a Lean organization is a unique combination of its Lean systems and employee behavior. (click here for more information). If you want to improve your performance, you need to analyze its components. You can get support from an external psychology consultancy firm for investigating the behaviors. You can also get system analysis support from Lean experts. However, it is not straightforward to build a synthesis from the analyses made at separate minds. This synthesis is an engineering job.

People feel discontent when their environment doesn’t allow them to fulfill their survival, belongingness, or respect needs. When the environment blocks more than one of these needs, some other instincts come into action, and deeper emotions grow: Fear, worthlessness, and aggression.


1.  Fear

Our instincts to stay alive trigger our defense mechanism when we perceive something as a treat. It is easy to understand the fear of losing our job because it poses a direct threat to our basic physiological needs. However, we also have higher-order needs, and we set our goals, generate options, make our decisions, and chose our behaviors to satisfy them. We can’t achieve our goals if the environment inhibits our behaviors. For this reason, we perceive any inhibition as a threat too. 

Whether this kind of threat drives more fear than the fear of losing the job is not so important because both threats cause the same response in our minds: Fear takes our brain from productive mode to defense mode (fight or flight).


Philosophy and psychology help us to understand how this mechanism works. Don't worry if this sounds challenging because there is a short-cut: Beliefs, feelings, reasoning, and decision making all occur in the brain and progress in Neuroscience in the last 10 now helps to explain them in cause and effect relationship.

Financial targets, KPI follow-up meetings, management by objectives, all create fear of failure and defensive behaviors when perceived as threat.

If you want your employees to realize their potentials at the workplace, you should remove fear. Removal of fear on others requires courage to face the mechanism of your own fear:

  • Threat: Rational thinking of employees that will flourish after you remove the fear has the potential to destroy all preconceptions of classical management.

  • Defensive behavior: Classical management culture that gave you privileges linked to your managerial position and university education etc., expects you to defend the status quo.


2.  Worthlessness

Part of the unit job gets smaller as organizations grow. Although it’s still a one-employee-one-day job, its footprint looks smaller from above. Undervaluing unit jobs due to their smaller contribution is a big mistake that causes daily jobs to lose their meaning. It is not easy for an employee to feel valuable when he or she thinks the job is not valuable.

A person develops a sense of self by looking at the reflections of his/her behaviors from other persons. The quality of people around plays such an important mirror role. Mirrors that do not reflect human worth are bad ones.

Control, as a management style, provides no reflection and thus no value. Organizations that use Lean systems to control employee behavior are characterized by detailed instructions and sharp responsibility matrices. In some cases, “to do” lists look like the checklists a pilot has to follow before take-off. For an airplane, it may be right however, over mechanization of systems where human is still the main element has a dreadful consequence: Perception of worthlessness. Resentment is only the tip of the iceberg.

Adding “how” information into “to do” lists surely helps employees in their decision making processes. Nevertheless, when “how to do it” information is given as behavioral codes focusing on the system but not on genuine behavior itself, they are uneasy to understand and digest.

Resentment is thus born, a behavior like rowing in different directions that damages cooperation and drops performance.

Though often underestimated, resentment has another important consequence: If employees lose the integrity between what they are and what is expected from them to be, resistance develops into unrest which is the greatest sickness of industrial culture today.

A simple Paradigm shift is all it takes to change the course of resentment. When you take resentment as a symptom instead of an unwanted result, you can start dealing with it.

What conflicts with human nature and causes worthlessness is not the behavioral expectations of the industry. It is the absence of values behind expected behaviors. This gap is filled by arbitrary beliefs if not deliberately filled with meaningful content. Staying indifferent causes a toxic culture to settle down. 

This perception allows you to see the role you have in shaping the culture you live within. Sincere interest and positive communication would uncover the causes of unrest and take responsibility to change them together with your team. The good thing is that employees will provide you the energy required to make this change. Every person does his or her best to be freed from unrest when an opportunity is given.

Involve your employees in decision-making processes. If possible, develop them by role modeling to make their decisions themselves. This does not only fulfill their capacities of rational choices and being autonomous but also speeds up your organization by de-central decision making. KPI's then turn from being fear factors into tools that guide servant leadership.


3. Aggression

I have seen organizations where Lean tools and systems are in place but the culture is still toxic. Toxic management culture blocks our capacity to create our choices and make our decisions autonomously. When the workplace does not reflect the value we have, we feel worthless. As a result, our existence shrinks.


Nevertheless, we are not defenseless but hardwired for survival. Our brains perceive these conditions as threats to our survival. The fear we feel calls a very powerful instinct into help: Great philosophers called it anger (Socrates), will to power (Nietzsche), predatory instincts (Russell), and death instinct (Freud). 

Aggression is considered as sickness and unwanted in workplaces. Because it’s an instinct, it can’t be eliminated.


It can be suppressed but with a cost: When you suppress an instinct of yourself or another person, you should be prepared for the consequences: Suppressed instincts come into life at a later time in the workplace or in private life, in much uglier forms.


Self-interest centered management easily suppresses employees’ instincts at the workplace and labels the subsequent passive-aggressive behavior as “resistance.”

Therefore, a rational way is;

  • To reduce disrespectful behaviors that threaten the worth of employees

  • To indulge instincts and find outlets for their satisfaction

How can we do that?

This is exactly where you need rational thinking. Everybody in the organization has the same fundamental needs and motivation to fulfill them. If not forced externally, the vision statement would be something like "Making the company successful to achieve the well-being of employees". Then, the mission statement would follow like “Ensure customer and employee satisfaction by continuously developing employees and realizing their potential.”

Although fundamental expectations of employees are the same, the expectations of companies are often defined differently. When group survival is not the main goal, teamwork looks not so meaningful, and employees are left with the only option to follow different thinking paths to satisfy their individual needs. Self-interests cause zero-sum behavior and some gains whereas some looses. Perceived threats trigger fear and defensive behavior, rotting the roots of synergy.

If you can take the threat out of the relations between employees and can place it somewhere outside the group, you can reduce aggressive behavior between individuals. Threats outside the group strengthen the bonds between members. Sad but true, look at what happens in war: Survival instincts aligned to group survival = High-performance teamwork.

If you can achieve an organization-wide consensus on the goals, threats like low productivity, market loss and lagging behind the rivals are equally perceived as threats by all employees. Nature does the rest: Aggression comes into help again, but this time for combating problems. 

Levent Turk, October 14, 2019

Please leave a comment, if you are interested

bottom of page