Ubuntu At the Gemba:


“My humanity is tied to yours. I am because you are.” 

In today’s post I will be looking at the African philosophical concept of Ubuntu. The word “Ubuntu” is best explained by the Nguni aphorism – Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu, which means “a person is a person because of or through others.” Ubuntu is a key African philosophy and can be translated as humanity. It emphasizes the group solidarity, sharing, caring and the idea of working together for the betterment of everybody. Ubuntu has many derivatives in Bantu languages and this concept is spread across the many nations in Africa.

Ubuntu is the humanness in us. It is said that a solitary human being is a contradiction. We remain human as part of a community. We get better through the betterment of our community. Our strength comes from being part of a community. To quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. 

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity. 

An interesting part about African philosophy is that most of it was not written down. The ideas were transmitted through oral traditions, which depended upon having strong communal roots. Some of the key ideas that are part of the Ubuntu philosophy are:

  • Always aim for the betterment of the community over self.
  • When we treat others with dignity, all of us are able to perform and contribute better.
  • The strength of the community lies in the interconnectedness of the members.
  • The survival of one person is dependent upon the survival of the community.
  • Ubuntu philosophy aims for harmony and consensus in decision making.
  • Ubuntu requires us to be open and make ourselves available to others.
  • Ubuntu requires us to coach and mentor those younger than us. This also helps us become better at what we do.
  • Respect and dignity, as part of ubuntu, ensure that we provide an environment where everybody is able to contribute and bring value.
  • Ubuntu is a philosophy focused on people, and promotes working together as a team towards the common goal. At the same time, it promotes healthy competition and challenges people to keep growing.
  • Ubuntu points out that aiming for individual goals over common goals is not good. System optimization is the end goal.
  • Ubuntu facilitates a need to have a strong communication system.
  • As a management system, Ubuntu puts the focus on local conditions and context. How does what we do impact those around us? How does what we do impact our environment? How does what we do impact our society?
  • Another key concept is the Ubuntu philosophy is forgiveness or short memory of hate!

As I was researching and learning about Ubuntu, I could not help but compare it against the concept of “Respect for Humanity” in Toyota Production System.  I see many parallels between the two concepts. Respect for Humanity (People) is one of the two pillars of the Toyota Way. The other pillar being Continuous Improvement. Japan is an island with limited resources, and the concept of harmony is valued in the Japanese culture. Toyota Production System and Lean are famous for its many tools. Tools are easy to identify since they have physical attributes like kanban, Visual work place, standard work etc. However, respect for people was not understood or looked at by the Toyota outsiders. Most of the Japanese literature about Toyota Production System mentioned Respect for Humanity (people) while it took a while for the western authors to start discussing Respect for Humanity.

Toyota’s view of Respect for People is to ensure that its employees feel that they are bringing value and worth to the organization. Fujio Cho, the pioneer of the Toyota Way 2001, expressed Respect for People as:

Creating a labor environment “to make full use of the workers’ capabilities.” In short, treat the workers as human beings and with consideration. Build up a system that will allow the workers to display their full capabilities by themselves.

Toyota has built up a system of respect for human, putting emphasis on the points as follows: (1) elimination of waste movements by workers; (2) consideration for workers’ safety; and (3) self-display of workers’ capabilities by entrusting them with greater responsibility and authority.

Final Words:

Paul Bate, Emeritus Professor of Health Services Management in University College London, said:

Nothing exists, and therefore can be understood, in isolation from its context, for it is context that gives meaning to what we think and we do.

Our context is in the interconnectedness that we share with our fellow beings. It is what gives meaning to us. In this regard, Ubuntu sheds light on us as humans. Respect for people begins by developing them and providing them an opportunity to grow so that they can help with the common goal and causes.

I will finish with the great Nelson Mandela’s explanation of Ubuntu:

A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is:

Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Clausewitz at the Gemba:

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