The Myth of Sisyphus and Respect for People:


Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra in Greek mythology. The Gods punished him for tricking them. His punishment was to push a boulder to the top of the hill, upon which the boulder would then roll down the hill to the starting point. He had to push the boulder back up again, and the boulder would again roll down. This continued for eternity. Sisyphus was engaged in an endless task of futile effort. Do you feel like Sisyphus at work? What Sisyphus is trying to do is to push the boulder to the top of the hill. There is no value in this. What he is accomplishing is heavy labor and no progress. Sisyphus is a perfect metaphor for non-valued added work.

The myth of Sisyphus is closely related to respect for people. Sisyphus is engaged in a 100% non-value added activity. No matter how much kaizen he does, his activity would still remain 100% non-value added. Perhaps, he can come up with a cart with wheels to improve his work; still what he is doing ultimately does not add any value. He is going through a punishment. Is this comparable to an operator spending 10 minutes to an hour looking for tools or making parts that are poor quality such that they have to be reworked immediately?

Labor Density – Toyota:

Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System has stated the following about work and motion;

Moving about quite a bit does not mean working. To work means to let the process move forward and to complete a job. In work there is very little waste and only high efficiency. Managers and foremen must endeavor to transform mere motion into work!

Here, work indicates value added activity. Ohno talks about ugoki, which in Japanese means wasted motion and tenuki, which in Japanese means an act of omission. Ugoki is when an operator is merely moving material from one location to the other. Tenuki is when an operator is carelessly performing an operation such as tightening a bolt half way. Hataraki, on the other hand in English can be translated as value added work.

Toyota describes Labor Density as follows;

   Work/Motion = Labor Density

The goal is to increase the Labor Density as much as possible. There are two ways this can be done. The first way is to increase the numerator (Work) by making the operators work harder. One way of increasing the numerator is when the work load is increased without improving the process itself. The second way, prescribed by Ohno, is to reduce the denominator (Motion) by eliminating waste.

The Counterintuitive Nature of Respect for People and TPS:

Employees at an organization give their valuable time and energy to the organization. Sometimes, it may be perceived that TPS is about getting the maximum benefit out of the employees. This is against respecting them, as taught by TPS. However, TPS is not all about numbers. Toyota’s goal has always been to reduce the overall man hours required by eliminating wasted motions. This concept eliminates those actions that do not produce profit and do not let the process to move forward. This concept utilizes the energy of the employees to effective and useful work. This is stated in an internal Toyota document from 1970’s as an expression for respect for humanity (or respect for people as it is termed now):

If the organization does not create an environment where the work performed by the employee is not value added, it is against the principle of respect for humanity.

The following is taken from Toyota no Genba Kanri,(the title of English translation was changed as Kanban – Just in Time at Toyota);

People’s sense of value cannot be satisfied unless they know they are doing something worthwhile.


Source: The first book Toyota Production System, Ministry of Education 1973.

Respect for People is not about making the employees work harder, but increasing the value in what they do. Another way that Ohno talked about this was by introducing the idea of “work floating” and “work flowing”. The process can only progress when things flow. This is the concept of “work flowing”. Everything is connected, and work is pulled by the subsequent operation. However, when material is transported from one operation to another in batches, work is not flowing. It is now “floating”! Ohno called the different stations as remote islands.

Final Words:

Respect for people’s impact on productivity is also backed up by science. Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has shown that making work meaningful increases productivity. More on this in a later post.

The Engineer in me tells me that with time, Sisyphus would have cut through the hill due to the constant rolling of the boulder. The boulder would turn into a small pebble from the constant rolling as well. Thus, maybe the moral of the story is to be persistent at what you do, and in the end you will succeed. There is also another explanation that the story is about the sun rising and setting. The sun is the boulder that gets pushed at the break of dawn, and reaches the top at noon time, and then rolls down to cause the night.

I will finish this post with a story I heard as a kid. Strangely enough, there is a character in Kerala’s mythology that is similar to Sisyphus. Kerala is a state in India, and I hail from there. The character of the story is called Naranathu Branthan, the madman of Naranathu. He is regarded as a very wise man today, but was seen by others as a madman in those days. One of his characteristics was that he had elephantiasis (a deformation caused by disease where the leg is swollen up) on his left leg. He used to roll a boulder up a hill every day, and then would let it roll down for his own enjoyment. He would clap his hands and laugh with glee as he watched the rock roll down. Unlike Sisyphus, the madman of Naranathu did it just for pure enjoyment. One day he met Kali, an Indian goddess, as he was retiring for the night. Kali was impressed by the madman and told him that she will give him a boon (blessing).

“I do not want any boons”, the madman said.

Kali informed him that she has to give a boon or a curse, and she insisted that he take a boon.

“I want to increase my life time by a second”, the madman replied.

Kali told him that she could not do that.

“Then I want to decrease my life time by a second”, the madman said.

Kali told him she could not do that either.

The madman thought for a while and asked Kali to move the elephantiasis from his left leg to the right leg. Kali complied, and the madman lived with elephantiasis on his right leg from that day onwards.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Stop Asking Why!

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Sisyphus and Respect for People:

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