Toyota Leadership Lessons: Part 5 – “If you believe you are perfect, you won’t find the answer”

This is the final part in my recent series of posts about my visit to Nagoya in June to talk with Isao Yoshino about his experiences as a Toyota leader for 40 years.
CLICK HERE to get a curated PDF of 10 Toyota leadership lessons that Mr. Yoshino has shared with me.

You asked me and I asked Mr. Yoshino!

While I was meeting with Yoshino-san, I followed up to ask him about some questions that some of you have posed to me in social media or in personal communication, as well as continued our general discussion on leadership. I am also including more photos from the Toyota Automobile Museum.

This post continues a series of posts of earlier discussions with Yoshino about leadership, Lean and Toyota. You can find these posts here:

A3 thinking at Toyota

Japanese copy of "Managing to Learn"
Japanese copy of “Managing to Learn”. Yoshino was one of the models for the manager character of “Sanderson” to Shook’s “Porter”.

I asked Yoshino about his perspective of A3 thinking and how A3s are used at Toyota. He told me that, “you can know A3 in theory, but you need to practice it to really understand it.” I completely concur!

He went on to explain that the process of putting together an A3 is important as it helps each of us to establish the habit to think more deeply, not just give the “answer”. I’ve found this to be true in my own practice, and it is a key point of what I talk about when I teach A3 thinking.

A3 at Toyota is used for both communication and problem solving. Yoshino did admit that “sometimes the Toyota style is too much” for some organizations – especially when starting out –  and that each organization needs an approach that fits their needs and culture.

This perspective is refreshing as I’ve encountered some former employees of long-standing lean thinking companies or consultants who have been less flexible in being able to meet another organization where it is at. The principles are the most important – and the goal of how to develop people’s thinking and capability. The manifestation of the principles in forms of tools and practice will depend on each organization’s culture and stage of development.

TPS for knowledge and office work

In our first meeting, Yoshino shared with me that TPS is not used as much in the non-production areas of Toyota, or in other manufacturing industries in Japan. This observation was echoed by the TPS Promotion Office director that I spoke with in Kyushu in June.

I followed up with Yoshino in more depth this time asked him why he thinks that TPS or Lean is not used much in non-production areas at Toyota or in Japanese office and service industries.

The Toyota Crown was Toyota's first passenger car, build on the motto "the customer first, the dealer second, the manufacturer third".
The Toyota Crown was Toyota’s first passenger car, build on the motto “the customer first, the dealer second, the manufacturer third”.

His perspective is that in knowledge and office work, it might feel less rewarding to make improvements because the result is not as immediately visible as it might be in a production area. He also thought that perhaps the office areas are doing elements of “TPS” but that they see themselves as different.

I see a tremendous opportunity in Japan for knowledge and service industries, including healthcare, to learn from the deep practice of Lean many manufacturing organizations have developed.

My friend Dan Markovitz just wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review giving examples of how Lean thinking can be applied to knowledge work. Jim Benson, who I heard speak at the recent Lean Coaching Summit, also has many examples of how lean thinking – in particular the application of kanban – can be used to manage knowledge work.

Strategic targets should be a reach

I also asked Yoshino about how he thinks about hoshin kanri – or the practice of strategy deployment – specifically about the process of setting organizational strategic targets.

Yoshino shared that the target should be a little higher than you actually think you can attain. The reason for this is that it is good to have failures and mistakes, as it is the what you learn from the lessons of not reaching your targets that make you smarter.

Toyota culture

As we toured around the decades of car history at the Toyota Automobile Museum, Yoshino reflected on aspects of Toyota culture.

Toyota chief engineer as leader

Toyota's first Chief Engineer
Toyota’s first Chief Engineer, Mr. Nakamura, and the development of the Toyota Crown.

At the Toyota Automobile Museum, there was a small exhibit focused on the cars developed by Toyota’s first chief engineer.

The Shusha, or chief engineer, has many important qualities, as described by Yoshino:

  • strong
  • good listener
  • conductor of the symphony
  • respected
  • has “guts”
  • is consistent

Yoshino spoke with respect about the chief engineers that he has known over his career. He had a chance to work with Nakamura-san as well as many others.

Humble

The Five Main Principles of Toyoda
The Five Main Principles of Toyoda

He said to me that Toyota people are humble and down to earth. They are from the country – as Toyota City is really in the countryside outside of Nagoya.

They are not the typlcal “city slickers” that many corporate people are, and Toyota is not based in Tokyo as many corporations are.

Respect really means something at Toyota and he links this back to their “simple” roots.

Focused on learning

The Crown was the first car made using a Chief Engineer as the cross-functional leader.
The Crown was the first car made using a Chief Engineer as the cross-functional leader.

Throughout our conversations, Yoshino has emphasized that Toyota always wants to learn. It is deeply ingrained in the basics of the company mindset to get to root cause.

We talked about the recent scandal that was all over the news in June – the arrest of American Toyota VP of Marketing for importing illegal prescription drugs. He thought it was good that the President came out publicly immediately, which he hadn’t done during the recalls. Yoshino said that he was waiting to see how Toyota would really respond internally and what they would learn through the hansei (reflection) process about what happened at a company cultural level that contributed to the situation.

Believe in the power of mistakes

At the end of our day, on the drive back to Nagoya station, Yoshino shared what I think was one of the top take away quotes from our day together. He said that a humble attitude as a leader is critical. He said:

“If you believe you are perfect, you won’t find the answer. If you don’t believe you are perfect, then you are open to finding the answer. Once you are ready to accept that mistakes can happen, then you are okay because you will learn.”

It all goes back to being humble and a constant quest of learning in search of continuous improvement towards our goals.

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Please leave your comments and questions below. I really enjoy the dialogue with you all!




Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 118 Articles
Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.
  • Michael Bremer

    Katie….I apologize for the length of this post. But would be curious to see if you can find something in it, worth turning into a few questions.

    I’m talking to the issue of improvement program failure in a slightly different fashion these days. Simply speaking…..there are three key issues from my perspective:

    Control/Fear – Two sides of the same coin. Leaders feel they need to be ‘in control.’ Their afraid chaos will erupt if they let go of control. That FEAR causes additional fears to grow inside the organization. One example: People are reluctant to suggest alternative methods because they are afraid it will disrupt the status quo and/or challenge what the leader is trying to accomplish. Thus important conversations that should take place don’t happen – learning opportunities get lost.

    Lack of Process Understanding – Intellectually everyone understands processes exist. But the easiest way to manage is to break those processes into component parts and to try to manage the pieces. Using ‘control’ of course. So we optimize component parts and the overall process operates in a very average way. Processes inside most organizations (other than technical product related activities) are highly unstable. People do work arounds on a daily basis. From a higher level view, the process appears to be working just fine as the work got done. At lower levels and in varying degrees chaos reins. But leaders don’t find ways to pull back the covers and see it.

    I’m not ready to articulate the third bubble yet but it will deal with trust and your comment above of ‘developing people’s thinking capabilities.’

    Perhaps the third point will go along this line of thinking….Leaders in companies that are highly effective at improving tend to operate with a high degree of humility. There is a tremendous amount of energy that can be release when ‘humility’ is part of the culture. It becomes less about me, and more about you. Those leaders know they are not in control. And that the only way to gain some degree of control (process stability) is to develop the skills and capabilities of people as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

  • Charles Intrieri

    A3 theory does mean noting unless you practice it at gemba. There is no such thing in life as being perfect, We are human. We al make mistakes:”If you believe you are perfect, you won’t find the answer. If you don’t believe you are perfect, then you are open to finding the answer. Once you are ready to accept that mistakes can happen, then you are okay because you will learn.” We all have to be objective, and open to finding answers. DMAIC and PDCA can be used to solve problems. My motto is: “There is always a better way to do anything.” Believe it. Good post, Katie.

  • Michael – thank you for more thoughtful – and thought provoking – comments. I do have a few questions for you, in service to developing your thinking on this topic. I have some comments too, but I will stick to asking humble questions of inquiry for now!

    1. What do you mean by “improvement program”?
    2. Control/fear: How would the leaders you have worked with describe being “in control”? What does this mean to them?
    3. Process understanding: How are the leaders measuring the outcomes of the process? How are they engaging leaders at lower levels to rein in the chaos within their scope of control? How might they help connect the vision across these lower levels?
    4. (Okay, this is more of a comment than a question) – Perhaps humility is foundational to the other points, and lack of humility (or fear of needing to “be perfect”) is a root cause to your first two points.

    I look forward to your thoughts!
    -Katie

  • Thanks for your comments Chuck. Your point resonates with the thinking Michael also poses below. As leaders, how do we define what “being in control” is? Does that mean being the ones with the perfect answer all the time, or does it mean also setting up the conditions to enable others to help solve the problems at hand?

  • Michael Bremer

    1. What do you mean by “improvement program”? Just a label for what companies do to improve. Typically U.S. and European companies appoint someone to shepherd an improvement initiative, it works along side the regular business. In many ways this creates a trap that limits how effectively they can improve. We wrote about this in “Escape the Improvement Trap”

    2. Control/fear: How would the leaders you have worked with describe being “in control”? What does this mean to them? Leaders typically pine for control. ERP systems were typically sold as a vehicle for senior management to know everything that is going-on. Very much a control device. Leaders often feel they are responsible, so they are reluctant to give up control (not realizing it is a figment). It is scary to let go. People typically say they trust the people they work with, but they don’t operate that way on a day to day basis. I suspect they would say, “we need these control mechanisms to make sure everything works the way it is supposed to happen.”

    3. Process understanding: How are the leaders measuring the outcomes of the process? How are they engaging leaders at lower levels to rein in the chaos within their scope of control? How might they help connect the vision across these lower levels? Typically leaders do not do this. The company I visited last week in Berlin was doing some very good things. But there is still a tremendous amount of variation taking place in their day-to-day processes. People do workarounds every day to solve problems. From a higher level management perspective then it looks like the processes are working just fine. My major observation and comment I shared with this company at the end of the day was to make work arounds more visible. i really did not care how they did it, leaders simply need to clearly see this is happening.

    4. (Okay, this is more of a comment than a question) – Perhaps humility is foundational to the other points, and lack of humility (or fear of needing to “be perfect”) is a root cause to your first two points. Agreed

    Not sure if this clearly answers your questions. If not…please ding me again.

  • Michael Bremer

    Over the years a number of studies have shown that improvement programs typically fail 70% of the time. There were a number of studies published by McKinsey and Booze Allen in the 90s. In the lean world people typically say only 5% to 10% of improvement initiative are as highly effective as the Toyota approach. I have not seen hard data on this, but it definitely fits with my experience.

  • I’m jumping on another long flight today (this has been an unusually busy months with visits to 5 countries – China, Singapore, Mexico, U.S. and, of course, Japan). No new gemba visits on this trip to Mexico, though I’ll be spending a day with one of my healthcare clients in California. Sitting in the Narita lounge now waiting for my flight and pondering your comments.

    Initial thoughts are:

    1. When leaders think of improvement as a “program” rather than something they build into the fabric of how everyone works, then their “program” is bound to fail. Yes, I think that most organizations need a group like a “Kaizen Promotion Office” to serve as coaches and resources for improvement in the beginning, but improvement can’t rest with one department or program. Successful orgs that I’ve seen or worked with have been able to transition away from a “program” approach….those 90% that don’t will see their “improvement program” fade away without lasting results.

    2. I agree that leaders need to be in control, but perhaps our job as coaches to help them understand that control can mean something other than “leader having all the answers”. Putting in place controls such as tiered checking and understanding by going to gemba can create trust as well as deeper understanding of where leadership should concentrate time.

    3. I agree with you. As you zoom out and up it is harder to see the variation. Goes back to point 2. Senior leaders need to set the direction and how the components fit together to achieve that direction, and support the people with more direct control of processes to create stability.

    4. Ditto

    I look forward to more dialogue!

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