It's Just Kant


I was recently having a conversation with a prolific researcher and award-winning teacher of management on the topic of values in the workplace. We were perusing at a list of values that a recent study [1]had identified as the most espoused values in company mission statements. We examined each value, discussing whether these were terminal or instrumental values. A terminal value represents an “end”: something that exists for its own ultimate purpose. An instrumental value is a “means”: a value that helps to achieve a terminal value.

The second value on this list is “commitment to customers”. My conversational counterpart said to me: “well that’s an instrumental value”. I challenged him: “but isn’t the purpose of an organization to serve the customer – a terminal value in and of itself?” He responded no, arguing that serving the customer is an instrumental value – a means to the end value of making money/profit. I told him I disagreed – if you treat the customer as an end – in and of him/herself – then you will eventually realize profit. I mean, it’s just Kant, right?

Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that rational human beings should be treated as an end in and of themselves and not as a means to something else. Being human carries value and other humans should be treated accordingly. In an organizational context, should this not extend to all other people, like employees, co-workers, customers? To suggest that customers are a means to an end is to suggest that customers are not valuable in and of themselves. This flies in the face of why organizations exist in the first place. Organizations exist to serve customers. They need to earn a profit, and without a customer, the organization could not sell it's goods or services, and therefore would have no way to make a profit. For this reason, customers should be held to Kant’s categorical imperative – they are ends in and of themselves.

Once we begin to focus on customers as a means in and of themselves, we focus on solving problems for the customer – to solve whatever problem our organization is designed to solve. Solving problems for the customer gives meaning to the employees of the organization and creates relationships that sustain business success.

My exchange with this researcher regarding ends versus means can be applied to a variety of situations – let’s start with the airline industry. Customers refusing to comply with airline rules end up in confrontations with airline employees, get kicked off the plane, or are treated with violence. Other customers see this behavior and are enraged. When a customer fails to comply with an airline rule, there is an opportunity for the airline to treat the customer as an ends in and of him or herself. Confronting customers is the equivalent as treating them as a means – get them off the plane to get the plane off the ground. Each of these is an example of treating the customer as a means, instead of an end value.

What might these look like if the customer was the end value? If each customer deserved to be treated with dignity and respect? At the very least, the industry would not be plagued with negative press, but rather customers would enjoy flying. At the very best, the industry would be profitable by earning returning business from satisfied customers.

Run an experiment – with each decision you make, ask yourself, “Am I treating the customer as a means to an end or an end in and of him/herself?” I suspect this small experiment would result in bringing awareness to how often we fail to view the customer through Kant’s lens. Perhaps the experiment would provide an opportunity to shift our perspective and improve relationships, and ultimately, business success.

[1]Kelly, C., Kocourek, P., McGaw, N., & Samuelson, J. (2005). Deriving value from corporate values. Booz Allen Hamilton, The Aspen Institute.