Toyota Kyushu gemba visit: Part 3 – “If you always ask for success, then people will lie.”

Toyota Kyushu

Before I visited the Toyota Kyushu plant to talk with the Toyota TPS Promotion Office manager, I posted on social media to see if anyone had questions for me. I was able to ask two of the questions that were posed, and they provided some of the most interesting insights of the day.

Read on to the end to learn more! And leave questions that you have for that you for future gemba visits in Japan in the comments section below.

TPS / Lean applied in non-production or office areas

Thanks Jason Waller for your question:

“What is key to Lean in office departments like communications with workers doing different types of work each day?” 

This question caused the TPS Promotion Office manager to pause, so narrowed the question down to:

“How does Toyota use the TPS to manage in non-production or administrative areas?”

TPS is about the “P”

He thought some more and then answered that “it isn’t”.

Toyota philosophy
Toyota philosophy

I had heard this same answer when I talked to Isao Yoshino, a retired 40-year Toyota executive, a few months ago.

He said that the non-production areas are exposed to TPS (which is congruent with the development pathway that the TPS Promotion Office manager shared earlier in our conversation), but that they generally see TPS as something that is owned by the production areas.

While non-production areas might use elements or principles of TPS to manage, it is not as developed or as consistent, and they might not call it “the Toyota Production System”. I have a follow-up meeting with Yoshino and will ask him to elaborate.

Toyota culture versus Japanese business culture

Thanks Mark Graban for your question:

“How do they see the difference between ‘Toyota culture’ and typical ‘Japan business culture?'”

This question led to what I consider the top insight from the conversation, and it was literally as we were walking out the door saying our goodbyes.

Hard to make comparisons in Japan

Toyota Kyushu
Toyota Kyushu

I’ve found that many people at Toyota or other companies in Japan have a hard time answering any questions comparing their company to anything else because they don’t have experience beyond their one company.

It’s actually rare for someone in Japan to have worked for more than one company, as people tend to join a company when they finish university and stay through the course of their careers. For example, Isao Yoshino, a Toyota executive with whom I’ve spent some time with, was with Toyota for 40 years. This is typical even with today’s younger generations, though it is changing a bit.

Answer: it’s okay to try and not succeed

The TPS Promotion Office manager had actually worked for another company before joining Toyota, so he had a comparison point and offered up his insights.

He shared that at Toyota is is okay to experiment and not always succeed. People at Toyota are open for a challenge. If there is a clear goal and direction for action, the company allows you to try different ways to reach the goal. It is okay to fail – it doesn’t always have to be success.

He closed our meeting with the comment:

“If you always ask for success, then people will lie”.

To experiment, we have to be able to fail

I thought this comment was so powerful. If we expect success or perfection, we inhibit experimentation or innovation. Toyota sets reach goals and targets, but they do not solely care about the outcome. The process to get to the outcome is what is also important – and it is okay to try different pathways (and fail, and keep trying) to get there. This is one reason Toyota has seen the success it has and is one of the more innovative companies in Japan.

In Japan there is a deeply entrenched fear of failure or making a mistake, which results in a society that is generally risk adverse. This trait is helpful in terms of compliance to standard work, but it is not so good for innovation or experimentation.

One of the things that has struck me since moving to Japan six months ago, is that the philosophies of TPS and Lean are not inherently Japanese. In fact, in many ways, they are a countermeasure for Japanese cultural traits. I will continue to explore this in future posts.

What is your reaction?

What is your reaction to the comment that “If you always ask for success, then people will lie” or how TPS is applied in Toyota’s office settings? Share your thoughts below on this or other reflections.

I welcome your comments!

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 127 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

    It is a powerful statement “If you always ask for success, then people will lie.” You know the statement is powerful, because your immediate thought is “Yes, of course they will.” While people enjoy success, they typically dread being in trouble or being thought of poorly. So they seek to find ways to avoid it. “Lie” might be a tad overstated. People often feel if they just have a little more time, they will then make it right. So while the statement is a lie, the intention is a little more honorable….but it avoids getting people to understand ‘reality’ as it truly exist. Instead they believe a ‘myth’ as the truth. And that often causes poor decision making.

    For the last ten years I have been trying to understand the difference between the handful of organizations (3% to 5% of any given industry) that improve much more effectively than everyone else. Average organizations and elite organizations all use the improvement tools reasonably well. But the elite organizations do a few things differently. And I think the first most important element deals with your quote.

    There is a sincere desire to understand ‘reality’ as it truly exist. People do not get in trouble for saying “this baby is ugly; I made a mistake, or the experiment did not work the way I expected.” This is very powerful as it encourages truth telling.

    My question of the day for you is – What is the difference between a highly successful or outstanding leader at Toyota and very good leader? I’m assuming both are very competent at what they do. But the creme rises to the top for a reason? A second part of that questions is – Is it situationally dependent, or is that difference pretty much the same today as it was 30 years ago?

  • Steve McGee

    You mentioned that ‘TPS might be a countermeasure’ – and I think this is exactly right. All management could be seen as such. If this is true, one ‘best practice’ for management is not necessarily a good fit for different cultures whether they be national or corporate.

    As an external consultant, I hear more truth from staff than managers do. I’m (still) surprised at how reluctant employees and contractors are to tell the truth.

    A root cause of this, in my opinion, is the over-reliance on the predictive skill of managers and planners. It’s as if they feel people are capable of deciding a future outcome by fiat. Looking at it this way, anyone would say that would be hubris or arrogance. I’ve rarely seen any manager who operated on the assumption that we cannot predict the future, however.

    So we hold staff accountable to our predictions. Of course they lie.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comments and question.

    I agree that the power in the statement is in it’s simplicity. It’s possible that “lie” was not a direct translation of what the Toyota manager said (as he was speaking in Japanese and my colleague was interpreting for me), but I believe the essence resonates for the reasons you have shared.

    In healthcare, the industry with which I’m the most familiar, there is a huge focus on on having a “Just Culture”, but I haven’t found many that rise to the elite that you reference. The stakes are high when mistakes are made, but often people worry about being blamed rather than looking at the processes and how to fix the root cause.

    Thank you for your question about what makes an outstanding leader at Toyota. I too am interested in exploring this further and will report back as I learn. The Toyota TPS Promotion Office Manager alluded to the difference in management capabilities in the earlier part of our conversation, but I wasn’t able to probe deeper at that time. And please continue to share what you are learning.

  • Steve – thank you for your comments.

    Just as you said, best practice management for one place might not be the best practice at another. For example, I visited another Japanese organization a few months ago that eschews management and rules as much as possible because they don’t want people to limit their creativity for improvement by either feeling constrained by rules or expecting managers to have all of the answers. Interesting countermeasure for the problems that they think challenge their ability to add value to their customers.

    And I agree as a consultant (either internal or external), I often hear more truth from staff than what they are willing to share with managers. Even the TPS Promotion Office manager shared the same thing earlier in our conversation, and that the TPS staff have to go to the managers and say “come to gemba, there’s something going on that you need to see”.

  • Michael Bremer

    Will do Katie (I love that name…as that is also our daughter’s first name). My last two books focused on this subject. Working on a new one that will be about ‘coaching leaders on improvement’ not sure what title will use.

  • Michael – Thanks! 🙂

    I’ll have to check out your books, and I look forward to hearing more about your upcoming book. Coaching – and coaching for improvement – is the biggest part of my consulting practice. I gave a talk about this in Australia in May. Would be interested in how this compares with how you are thinking about the topic.

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  • Bryon Brandt, PE, LSSGB

    Hello Michael,

    On Jay Bitsack’s recommendation I read David Marquet’s book Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders.

    I share this with you, in case it is useful to you in writing your book about Coaching Leaders on Improvement.

    I was very impressed with the book and its teachings, so will be going to a live David Marquet event next month.

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