Toyota Leadership Lessons: Part 7 – Insights into how “respect for people” & “continuous improvement” became the pillars of the Toyota Way

Hint - it's not just about the tools, but about the people

What was the thinking that led up to the development of the Toyota Way in 2001? I asked my friend Mr. Isao Yoshino, a 40-year Toyota leader, this question and he shared his thinking with me (and now you) about why “continuous improvement” and “respect for people” became codified as the two pillars of the “Toyota Way” 15 years ago. Read on to learn more!

You can also CLICK HERE to get a curated PDF of the top 10 Toyota leadership lessons that Mr. Yoshino has shared with me over the past two years.

The Toyota Way 2001

The Toyota Way guides the deployment of the Toyota Production System at TMH.
The Toyota Way guides the deployment of the Toyota Production System at Toyota Memorial Hospital.

In 2001, Toyota leadership published the now famous document “The Toyota Way 2001”, which codified Toyota’s key values and principles for a global audience based on two pillars: continuous improvement and respect for people.

In the image here you can see the breakdown of the Toyota Way 2001 principles, as described to me by leaders at Toyota Memorial Hospital in Toyota City, Japan.

You can read about some of the history of Toyota Way 2001 document on Toyota’s own website. Michel Boudin has also written this post about the specific Toyota Way 2001 document. Jeff Liker, whom I interviewed recently, has also written many books based on the Toyota Way principles.

But what thinking led to the Toyota Way?

Making pottery with my friend and mentor Isao Yoshino in May, a few weeks before I left Japan.
Making pottery with my friend and mentor Isao Yoshino in May, in May 2016 a few weeks before I left Japan. We did not intentionally coordinate in blue striped shirts!

What was the thinking behind WHY Toyota codified these specific principles into the Toyota Way 2001?

This question came up in conversation with a colleague recently, so I decided to go to the source and ask someone who was there on the inside at Toyota for over 40 years.

I emailed my friend and mentor Mr. Isao Yoshino, who was one of John Shook’s first managers at Toyota, to see what insights he could share with me. Mr. Yoshino has given me permission to share his thoughts with you.

The post below highlights quotes from my email exchange with Mr. Yoshino and some of my reflections on his thoughts.

The history leading to the Toyota Way 2001

Mr. Yoshino began his thoughtful reply by writing:

You asked me how the two pillars of Toyota Way 2001 were developed.  Actually, to my surprise, I noticed that I have never asked that question to myself or somebody else before.
So I don’t know whether I can give you a right answer or not.  But I will jot down my own assumption on the reason why Mr. Cho decided to develop Toyota Way 2001.

Side comment: On one visits to Nagoya last year to visit Mr. Yoshino, I had an unexpected brief encounter with Mr. Fujio Cho, the former President and Chairman of Toyota, while departing the train station. This encounter prompted Mr. Yoshino to share with me a personal story about what an influential leader Mr. Cho had been for him personally.

Before getting to his hypothesis of the why Mr. Cho developed The Toyota Way 2001, Mr. Yoshino first described his personal experience of the historical context leading up to 2001.

1960s and 1970s – Deming, Hoshin Kanri and Problem Solving

In his email to me, Mr. Yoshino elaborated on the Kanri Noryoku Program (Kan-Pro, for short), that he wrote about recently with John Shook. The program, aimed at teaching managers A3 thinking and Hoshin Kanri, was implemented across Toyota in 1979 and 1980. Mr. Yoshino was one of a team of four on a task force in Nagoya City charged with creating and implementing the program across the company.

Mr. Yoshino explained that the Kan-Pro program of teaching A3 thinking more deeply to managers was implemented nearly 20 years after Toyota actually had “started learning Lean concepts from Dr. Deming in early ’60s.

This comment by Mr. Yoshino stands out to me as a reinforcement of what I recently wrote for an article in Planet Lean that lean isn’t inherently Japanese and that “Lean is – and always has been – a combination of the best management thinking from different cultures.”

Countermeasures to backsliding of quality improvement

However, just like everywhere, entropy rules and without intentional focus and old habits and preferences creep back.

Mr. Yoshino went on to explain that:

Mr. Nemoto, Senior Managing Director at that time [late 1970s], noticed that the excitement of QC activities in early ’60s has started slipping off the mind of many employees, particularly leaders at non-manufacturing divisions.
For this reason, Mr. Nemoto thought it would be necessary to re-tighten screws with the leaders of those divisions.

Kan-Pro was developed as a countermeasure (my words) for this backsliding to “non-lean” thinking and practices at Toyota at that time.

Mr. Yoshino believes that:

Toyota’s Hoshin Kanri (and Kanri Noryoku Program) … is one of the major reasons why Toyota continues to pursue its goal consistently with all the employees involved.

1980s – Toyota’s Global Expansion

In the 1980s, Toyota (and other Japanese car manufacturers) expanded into the global market.

Mr. Yoshino himself, along with John Shook and many others, was directly involved in translating and teaching the Toyota Production System to an American audience at the NUMMI plant.

1990s – “Lean” seen as a technical improvement system

In the 1990s, the Western world got interested in how Toyota was dominating the global car market. In this decade, an explosion of research and books were published, beginning with the seminal book “The Machine that Changed the World” in 1990, in which the term “Lean” was first used to describe Toyota’s system.

However, as many people recognize now, researchers at this time emphasized the more visible and technical side of Toyota’s management system, without seeing or describing as much of the social side.

Mr. Yoshino explained his own observations about how outsiders saw “Lean” and how it relates to why Mr. Cho developed the Toyota Way in 2001:

TPS prevails around the world with a different naming of Lean.  Many people have some knowledge on the key elements of TPS/Lean.  There are so many books about Lean and the word of kaizen is commonly used as an English word in the manufacturing community.

I would guess Mr. Cho was still concerned that just understanding key elements of TPS such as “standardized work”, “takt time”, “kanban system”, etc. was not enough to manufacture good quality car.  All these key words are important tools to make TPS/Lean take root in the production site.  However, such key elements as “leaders’ role”, “show your respect”, “No problem is problem”, “make people before making cars” are not necessarily treated as equally as “kaizen” and other practical tools to make good cars.

2001 – Toyota Way developed to balance tools and concepts

Mr. Yoshino went on to explain that:

I thought Mr. Cho must have thought that such elements as “show your respect” are conceptional and non-visual, while “kaizen” and other words are quite practical and they are visual.  People tend to focus on visual key words more.

Practical tools (such as kaizen) and conceptual elements (such as respect) are two wheels of a cart.  If one wheel is missing, a cart cannot move forward.

Yoshino Toyota Way

The Toyota Way was a countermeasure to make “respect for people” more visible

So just like the Kanri Noryoku Program was a countermeasure for the backsliding of key TPS practices in the late-1970s, codifying the “Toyota Way” was a countermeasure for the global emphasis on TPS as a primarily a technical system of “continuous improvement.”

As Mr. Yoshino shared:

I would guess Mr. Cho has had the similar thought (or concern) as Mr. Nemoto around 2000 when Toyota was expanding its business boundaries across the globe. …

Mr. Cho must have thought that it would be essential for auto-workers in foreign countries deeply understand the key concept of Toyota’s business principle including TPS or Lean.

In essence, Mr. Cho’s reason for codifying the Toyota Way in 2001 was to emphasize the less-visible, but equally important, part of Toyota – respect for people.

Respect at Toyota runs deep – a personal story

To highlight the Mr. Yoshino shared a personal story of how he came to deeply learn and understand how important the concept of respect was at Toyota and how even the most senior leader embodied the principle “respect for people”.

When I was in charge of Hoshin Kanri project in 1979, I was told to draft a new-year speech for our president, Mr. Eiji Toyoda.  At that time, it was our division’s job to prepare key speech drafts for our president several times a year.  I was so thrilled at my boss’s order to write a new-year’s speech draft for the top guy of Toyota.

First thing I had to do is to review the year’s business conditions and figure out the next year’s outcome and develop a draft.  The second thing we had to do is to meet with our president in his office and show our first draft and also ask his opinion on our draft.

My boss and I visited our president’s office and show our draft.  He glanced over my draft and said, “OK.  Roughly it may be something like this.”

Then Mr. Toyoda said, “I just want to add a short comment on ‘safety on the job site’.”

My boss and I were puzzled at his comment because the new-year speech of our president is just like the State of the Union Speech at US congress.  We thought that adding “safety at the work site” would be too low in level for a new-year speech by the president.  So, my boss hesitantly said to him, “Excuse me sir, I am afraid that adding “safety on the job site” might make your speech sound less refined.”

President said, “Guys, my new-year’s speech does not have to be high-toned.  I want to emphasize to all the employees that ‘safety is the first priority at the job site’.”

At that moment, my boss and I came to know that the highest-ranking guy at Toyota is always thinking about his employees’ safety.

Mr. Toyota did not say a word of “respect” at the meeting, but what he meant was definitely “respect”.

Respect for people is what makes Toyota Toyota

Mr. Yoshino closed his explanation of why he thought the Toyota Way was developed with the pillars of “respect for people” and “continuous improvement” with the following statement:

I believe the concept of “respect” has been passed from one generation to the next at Toyota.  From the top-ranking leaders like Mr. Toyoda and Mr. Cho to a small-time manager like me, every leader at Toyota put a high priority on “respect” to the people around us.

If I am asked what made Toyota one of the top-ranking auto makers in the world, I would say, “We make people while we make cars.  It’s our people who make cars, not machines.  That’s ‘respect'”.

Humble as always

I am incredibly appreciative to Mr. Yoshino for sharing his thoughts with me – and for allowing me to share them with you here. Embodying another core Toyota leadership behavior that he has emphasized in conversations with me – humility – Mr. Yoshino signed off his message by saying:

I am not sure whether I answered your question or not.  I hope the above comment might be a small help to answer your question.

What do you think?

What do you think about Mr. Yoshino’s explanation that the Toyota Way 2001 was written as a way to emphasize the importance of “respect for people” as an equal pillar (the other wheel to the cart) of Toyota’s system?

If writing the Toyota Way 2001 was a countermeasure to global emphasis of the technical “continuous improvement” tools of TPS, how successful has it been in influencing global understanding that TPS (or Lean) is a sociotechnical system (not just technical system with a lot of continuous improvement tools)?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Toyota & Lean Leadership Lessons from Isao Yoshino

If you want to learn more wisdom about Lean and leadership practices at Toyota from Isao Yoshino, I’ve written extensively about my conversations with him in Japan over the past two years.

You can CLICK HERE to get a curated PDF of the top 10 Toyota leadership lessons that Mr. Yoshino has shared with me over the past two years.

And click on the following links to read in detail about some of my conversations and experiences with Mr. Yoshino:

I hope you enjoy these articles and words of wisdom from Yoshino-san!

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 106 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.
  • Wonderful reflection on RP! Two wheels indeed. Throughout the history of progressive management, practitioners have recognized through trial-and-error that CI does not happen without RP. For a thorough historical retrospective, see http://www.bobemiliani.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/LNM_Lesson_1_-Mean-6-22a.pdf

  • Thanks Bob. You have long been an advocate for RP as a vital – and often forgotten component – of how TPS has been translated into Lean globally. I thought you might be interested in Mr. Yoshino’s observations and insights here. Thanks for commenting!

  • James Frost

    I love the perspective that Toyota Way and the RP pillar were countermeasures to the perception of the only technical purposes of TPS. I also think that Toyota Way was written to clarify Toyota’s interpretation and application of Deming’s 14 Management principles.

  • Thanks for the comment James. I concur that there are probably several factors leading up to how and why Mr. Cho and Toyota leaders wrote the Toyota Way 2001, including to explain more deeply how Toyota thinks about improvement and management. The Toyota Way (and TPS) has always been a combination of the best thinking of East and West, and Toyota sought to emphasize the elements that were more overlooked in the West’s interpretation of TPS.

  • American_Dude

    This article is profound. The concept of two pillars itself provides a much more stable base than one pillar. Perhaps we can list examples of respect for people that will be equally as visual as the techniques of Lean. A few examples:
    Machines wait for people. People don’t wait for machines. (Not machine utilization maximization)
    We don’t lay off people to save the company. The people are the company.
    We don’t drop poor performing vendors. We go to the vendor with our engineers and work with them until they are top performing vendors.
    We don’t make our vendors drop their margins, we help them drop their costs.
    People are not the most important resource. They are the company.
    People that do the work know more about it than the people that demand the work.

  • Great comments!

  • Arnout Orelio

    hi Katie, sorry to let you know that the “CLICK HERE” for the 10 points PDF is not working. Could you please find out what’s wrong? I will comment on the article when I read it all.

  • Pingback: Japan Gemba Visit: Ashikaga Part 2 – Ogura Metal – using 5S and Lean to “bring smiles to all employees & customers” – Katie Anderson()

  • Apologies for the link not working. The program I’ve been using for the click links has had some issues lately, which is frustrating on my end too. I’ll email you with the link to the PDF. Thank you for your interest and for letting me know about the link.

  • Robert B. Camp

    I feel so fortunate to have stumbled across your writings.

    As I read this post, I appreciated all the more, your insights into the minds of Toyota’s leaders. Most of the formative minds at Toyota have already passed and we are hearing from them through the reflections of others. Still, those “reflections” have a way of refining the message, separating the metal from the dross, so to speak. Thank you for allowing your readers to share in your discoveries of these more pure metals.

    As I’ve grown in my own understanding of TPS (Lean), I’ve come to realize how critical leaders are to sustaining the “Continuous Improvement” wheel of the cart. Sadly, most of our leaders are far afield from the concept of “respect for people.” US leaders are still placing emphasis on the “tools” of Lean for largely selfish reasons.

    The Toyota corporation, and the Toyoda family, have performed a masterful job for many generations, keeping both wheels on the cart. Moreover, they have trained generations of leaders to do the same.

    I am grateful for your work and for the respect you’ve won that allows you to gain access to so many leaders of the TPS (Lean) community.

  • Robert – thanks for your comments. They made my morning! I feel fortunate for the experience to live in Japan for 18 months and even more so for the friendship I’ve developed with Mr. Yoshino. I have learned so much from spending time with him. He tells me too that he values our discussions as it makes him reflect on his experiences and articulate how his experiences have influenced him. I’m grateful that he is willing to let me share his reflections on my blog so that others too can learn from him.

    I too feel like in many cases the translation of TPS to “Lean” in the Western world has left off the “respect” wheel of the cart, with a greater emphasis on tools and improvement only. As Mr. Yoshino said, we need both wheels to effectively move forward in achieving our organizational goals.

  • It’s up and running again!

  • Arnout Orelio

    wow! Everytime Mr Yoshino speaks I get silent. What a great place the world would be, if we were all leading with respect, like him and his colleagues at Toyota.

  • I have my notebook out as much as possible when I’m with Mr. Yoshino so that I can capture his insightful reflections about leadership!