It will feel worse because it’s getting better.


The line is starting to flow, or at least there is more time flowing than not flowing. The places where it isn’t flowing well are now much more evident.

Things are speeding up. That is placing more stress on the engineering and materials supply processes where, before, they were shielded by a rough start-up that was always behind schedule.

They are catching up on the backlog, closing in on “on schedule shipment.”

“John” forgot to send a batch of parts to an outside processor. Before that would have been no big deal, it would be a day or so before those things were actually needed. But this time it briefly stopped the line and forced a work-around.

When everything was a work-around, nobody noticed. This time it got on the radar. It feels worse because the system is sensitive to smaller problems now, and there are plenty of those.

It isn’t “John’s” fault. He is flooded with a constant flow of things he needs to react to. There isn’t a structure for him to work within. That is the next opportunity.

Thus, it is critically important to remember a Toyota mantra:

‘No problem’ is a big problem.

If problems are not coming up, then your system is hiding them, plain and simple. You have stopped learning, stopped improving, stopped growing.

It is an easy groove to get into because we get all kinds of feel-good brain chemicals when things are going smoothly. We want more of those, less of the ones that call us to action.

But it is those “call to action” things that drive us to get better.

Reviving How To Make Things

Almost three years ago I wrote “Don’t Lose How To Make Things.”

In that post, I wanted to emphasize the risks of losing your expertise in the technology and skill required to make your product. Too many companies today seem to be bent on replacing those skills with financial ones.

Today I came across a fascinating article on Bloomberg’s site about how Toyota has come to the same conclusion.

You can read it here: ‘Gods’ Make Comeback at Toyota as Humans Steal Jobs From Robots.

In short, they have established workshops where workers manually produce parts that are normally made by automated processes.

A worker welds an automobile part in the chassis manufacturing department at a Toyota Motor Corp. plant in Toyota City.

The idea is to maintain understanding of how things are made so they do not lose the skill required to improve their production processes.

“Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center. “Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.”

One result?

In an area Kawai directly supervises at the forging division of Toyota’s Honsha plant, workers twist, turn and hammer metal into crankshafts instead of using the typically automated process. Experiences there have led to innovations in reducing levels of scrap and shortening the production line 96 percent from its length three years ago.

Toyota has eliminated about 10 percent of material-related waste from building crankshafts at Honsha. Kawai said the aim is to apply those savings to the next-generation Prius hybrid.

Today’s financially driven managers are unlikely to allow the space to experiment and learn. Instead, they want a deterministic process so next quarter’s results can be forecast accurately. It isn’t good to surprise the analysts.

At the same time, though, companies are pressing for things like “innovation.” That doesn’t happen in a breakthrough. It happens through the rigorous application of the skill of expanding knowledge. Once enough knowledge is accumulated, expertise develops and innovation follows.

Years ago, when I was working for a company making heavy equipment, one of our Japanese consultants (who had worked many years directly for Taiichi Ohno) urged our engineers to hand-form sheet metal parts – with hammers(!). We didn’t do it. But now I understand what he was trying to get us to do.

Jeff Liker: Is Lean a Waste Elimination Program or Striving for Excellence?

Jeff Liker asks (and answers) the title question in a great Industry Week blog article by the same title.

One of the biggest obstacles we in the lean community need to overcome is our own inertia around “Lean is a process for finding and eliminating waste.”

In the article, Liker brings up a point that is often lost on us: Looking for the problems and negative things kills morale.

The “waste” that you see is the result of underlying issues and culture. Stop overproduction in one place, and it either returns or pops up elsewhere because the underlying reasons for it were never addressed.

Operations that are not operating at a high level of lean typically are lacking underlying process discipline, which leads to these problems and they proliferate daily as the company is in a constant firefighting mode. Trying to eliminate waste in the current system and culture is like identifying and fighting problems—it is debilitating and a losing proposition.

[Emphasis added]

I bolded that phrase for a reason.

We aren’t talking about a technical implementation here. We are talking about a shift in the underlying culture – the habitual ways people interact with one another, with the process, respond to challenges and problems.

Today we have, thanks to Jeff Liker and a few others, an excellent picture of an ideal version of Toyota. We know what it looks like.

Getting there is an entirely different proposition, as most companies that have tried this stuff know first hand. It is hard.

What is beginning to emerge, though, is that the thinking pattern that is learned through solving these problems the right way (vs. just implementing tool sets) is the same thinking pattern required to shift the culture.

It is hard. You have to do the work. But the way to get there is emerging.

“True North” – Explicit or Intrinsic?

compassOne of the factors common to organizations that maintain a continuous improvement culture is leadership alignment on an overall direction for improvement – a “True North” – that defines the perfection you are striving for.

Steve Spear describes Toyota’s “Ideal” as:

An activity or a system of activities is IDEAL if it always produces and delivers:

(a) defect-free responses (those that meet the customer’s expectations),

(b) on-demand (only when triggered by the customer’s request),

(c) in batches of one,

(d) with immediate response times,

(e) without waste, and

(f) with physical, emotional, and professional safety for the supplier.

(From The Toyota Production System: An Example of Managing Complex Social / Technical Systems, Steven Spear’s PhD dissertation, 1999, Harvard University)

You (and I) can quibble about some of the semantics, but overall, this is a pretty good list.

Mike Rother (not coincidently, I am sure) puts up something quite similar in Toyota Kata:

…Toyota has for several decades been pursuing a long-term vision that consists of:

  • Zero defects
  • 100% value added
  • One-piece-flow, in sequence, on demand
  • Security for people

Toyota sees this particular ideal-state condition – if it were achieved through an entire value stream – as the way of manufacturing with the highest quality, at the lowest cost, with the shortest lead time. In recent years, Toyota began referring to this as its “true north” for production.

As I have tried to emphasize the importance of a leadership team having a clear sense of “True North” I have noticed that many of them get bogged down in trying to develop and articulate a concrete statement. (This is partly my fault, and I am revising my training materials to reflect what I am writing here.)

What I am realizing is that this is more of an “attractor” than a rule set. Let me explain through a bit of digression.

When we see something, we have an immediate emotional response. Generally it is attraction toward something we see as good (or are curious about); or avoidance of something we see as fearful or dangerous.

We construct a logical reason for that emotional reaction several tenths of a second after that emotional reaction is firmly anchored. Thus, our logic follows, rather than driving, our responses to things. This happens so fast that we are not usually aware, but two people seeing the same thing can respond very differently based on their individual background and experience. I don’t want to dive too deeply into psychology here, so I’ll pull back out of this.

“True North” sets the direction of process improvement because there is high alignment on what kinds of process changes are attractive vs. those which should be avoided. When I say “attractive” I mean “we want to actively move toward them” meaning the organization will expend energy, ingenuity, and resources to do so. This is how continuous improvement is driven.

If I am right, then “True North” is more of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing than it is a carefully articulated statement.

If I look at other businesses who are (or have been) pretty well aligned with their efforts, I can see the same kind of thing.

For example, though I doubt that it is articulated internally in this way, it has been pretty clear to me “Windows Everywhere” has been something that sets (or set) overall direction within Microsoft. (I’ll admit I don’t have as strong a sense of this as I did in the late 1990’s when my social circles included a number of people who worked there.)

A local hospital does articulate theirs, but it also makes sense: “No wait, no harm.”

Most organizations I have dealt with, though, don’t have a good sense of long-range perfection. They are mired in the details of today, tomorrow, this quarter.

They might have some kind of “vision” or “mission” statement, but often those are paragraphs that are carefully constructed to address constituencies (“Satisfying our customers while delivering maximum shareholder value and being a great place to work, blah, blah”)

Those “visions” though are rarely actively used to guide conversations or decisions, much less continuous improvement.

Since I believe this is a gap these teams need to close if they are to shift toward a continuous improvement culture, I need to improve how I am getting this across to them.

So… the next thing I am going to try is to rework my “True North” instruction and do a better job of framing it as something to actively move toward rather than something to try to logically articulate.

“True North” may be more of a feeling rather than a logical test.

This means that the job of the teacher / practitioner / change agent is to hold on to that “True North” during your coaching until the leaner “gets it” and starts actively seeking solutions that move in that direction.

The Structure Behind Leader Development

Chapter 3 of The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership is titled “Coach and Develop Others.”

Where in Chapter 2 the authors were outlining the individual leader’s responsibility for self-development, now they are describing the environment and the process of supporting and focusing that drive.

Rather than just outline the chapter, I want to dig into some key elements of the context that Toyota creates for their leaders.

First is the expectation that leaders lead.

Leading vs. Delegating

Chapter 3 has a great story that exemplifies the key differences in management styles that I alluded to in the post about Chapter 2.

In that story, NUMMI has equipment reliability problems in the body shop. Mr. Ito, the President has instructed Convis to have each engineer prepare and present a one page report for every breakdown lasting over 30 minutes. The telling moment is Convis behavior in the presentations:

While Ito was critiquing the [A3] presentations and reports, Gary [Convis] simply stood to one side, marveling at Ito’s insight and amused at the struggles of the engineers’ efforts to learn this way of thinking.

This quote nails the core issue we have to deal with in any company that wants to succeed with lean production.

Convis was newly hired from the U.S. automobile industry, and was acting exactly as he was trained as a manager. He was acting as every manager in the USA is trained.

He has delegated the process of training the engineers to Ito, who he sees as the technical expert. Convis viewed his presence here as overseeing how well his engineers are responding to that training.

Ito, though, had other ideas.

After a few sessions, Ito asked Gary how he was coaching the engineers through the process before the presentations. Ito pointed out that there was still a lot of red on the reports, and if Gary had been teaching the engineers properly, there would be less red ink. […] problems with the reports were a reflection of Gary’s leadership, and he was more responsible for any failures than the engineers were.


You can’t even cite “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught” here because the delegation paradigm was so strong that Convis didn’t realize he had responsibility for being the teacher.

Convis, of course, “got it” and began seeing the red ink as his failure, rather than the engineers’. The drive for self-development kicked in and worked. And of course, in the process of struggling to coach the problem solving process, he had to struggle to learn it well enough to do so.

Personally, I see the idea of delegating and then passively overseeing improvement and people development is a cancer that is difficult to excise from even the most well intentioned organization.

I have seen this with my own eyes – senior executives struggling with how to “implement lean.” What was their concern? What metrics they could use to gage everyone’s progress through reports to corporate headquarters. They simply saw no need to get personally involved in learning, much less going to see, and certainly not teaching, the messy details. Not surprisingly, that company still struggles with the concepts.

Of course it cascades down from there. The various sites’ leaders follow the example, and delegate to their professional staff people. The staff’s job? To come up with “the lean plan” and “drive improvement” while the leaders watch. At some point, someone in charge of the operation actually has to do something different, but that, it seems, is always the next level down.

I am not going to get into what stops leaders from stepping up to this responsibility or what do to about it because that would be a book in itself.

It doesn’t help that, with the revolving-door of leadership we often encounter, each new leader comes in with the old mindset. OK </rant> and back to the book. Smile

The Technical Support

This expectation of leaders leading does not operate in a vacuum. Toyota processes are deliberately set up to remove any ambiguity about what the next challenge is by surfacing problems immediately

In the words of Lean Leadership, these problems are framed as challenges for leader development.

In a much earlier post, I objected to our western euphemism of “opportunity” when we meant “problem.” My objection was treating this “opportunity” as an something that could be taken on, or not.

A challenge, especially in the context of leader development, isn’t optional. A top level athlete grasps the meaning of a challenge. He is driven to take it on and push himself to meet it. He improves in the process. It isn’t about the record, per se, it is about what he must develop and pull from within himself to get there.

Just as the world-class athlete has a stopwatch on every lap, the assembly line is set up to verify the timing of every cycle. Any discrepancy is immediately apparent to both the team member and the leaders. If the work can’t be done, the line is stopped and things are made right. Then we figure out why. And everyone learns.

TPS […] creates a never-ending stream of opportunities for on-the-job development and increased challenges. Toyota sensei do not need to create artificial training situations […]. The daily process of producing cars generates all the development opportunities and challenges that are needed.

If your organization has trouble finding problems, it isn’t because they aren’t there. It is because your processes are blind to them. That is why “No problem is a big problem.”

The key is that when we talk about “implementing the tools of lean” we are doing nothing more than setting up the baseline process to present the challenges for leadership development. That’s it. It is the difference between playing a casual game and deciding to keep score.

You can’t improve without keeping score, to be sure. But keeping score alone doesn’t cause things to get better. If anything, it increases people’s frustration because they see they are coming up short, but don’t have the support or opportunity to do anything about it.

What happens then? They start seeing problems as “normal” and start blinding the system. They add padding to cycle times to “allow for variation.” They decouple processes and put in extra inventory. They start running two at a time, then four, and return to batching.

If a problem remains hidden below the surface long enough, it can stop being perceived as a problem and become part of normal operating procedure.

OK, so I’ve beaten that to death yet again. It is critical to structure the work so that we can see whether things are going as planned or not.

But it is just as critical to have the problem solving processes engaged immediately. If those processes don’t yet exist, you have no hope of your so-called improvements sustaining for long.

That’s not all. There is another standard that is just as critical – if not more: A standard for problem solving.

The A3

We just got done exploring how critical it is to have a process that is totally transparent. Why? So we can clearly see any difference between how it is and how it should be.

The purpose of the A3 is to provide that level of visual control to the problem solving process itself.

And yes, problem solving is a process. It follows standard work. It is perhaps the most critical thing to standardize. The only way to gain skill at something is to practice against a clear standard. It really helps to have a coach watching your every move and calling out small adjustments, things you need to pay more attention to the next time you do it (which should be immediately).

The A3 is the game film, the slow motion camera, the visual control of how problem solving is being done. It is not sufficient to find the solution. It is more important to develop a consistent approach to problem solving across the entire organization.

But outside of Toyota and a few companies that are starting to grasp what this is about, the A3 is, sadly, one of the more recent fads in the lean community.

An A3 isn’t something you tell someone else to do. It is a visual control, just like the moving line, that works only in the context of direct observation and participation by all parties involved. In the above story, Ito was setting an example, and expecting Convis to follow it. Once that started happening, Ito’s participation shifted from coaching the engineers to coaching Convis as he coached them.

Just as the tools of takt time, standard work, pull systems, etc. do not stand alone and “make you lean,” neither does filling out A3 forms. Even if you have “the tools” and a problem solving process, it doesn’t help if they are not intimately linked together.

All of these things are designed for 1:1 interaction. They are messy testaments to the fact that problem solving often loops back to previous steps as more is learned.

The Big Picture

This chapter provoked a lot of thought for me, and I have tried to share some of that. When / if you choose to read the book, I hope you have your own thoughts, and even share them here or in the forum (that could use some life right now).

Fundamentally, Chapter 3 is about the phenomenal support Toyota provides those leaders who have the self-motivation to learn.

  • Every operation is structured to provide challenges and opportunities for them to develop their skills. There is no shortage of things that obviously need improving.
  • Every leader is positioned to teach and mentor those who are willing to step up to the challenges that are there.
  • The problem solving process itself is structured as standard work so that a prospective leader can practice against a standard and improve skill through repetition and coaching.

Aside from a couple of case studies and examples, this chapter is a bit of a synopsis of Toyota Kata. I continue to bring Kata into this discussion because there is obvious overlap in topics, and I see these two books complimenting each other. Kata gets into the nitty-gritty of how problem solving and coaching happens. Lean Leadership is providing a context and case examples of the entire ecosystem.

More to follow.

Defining Leadership

Chapter 1 of The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership is titled “Leading in the Toyota Way: A Lifelong Journey.”

It seeks to draw a sharp contrast between Toyota’s leadership model and the model that is taught and practiced in a more “traditional” Western company.

Where the “teaching” process in a traditional company tends to be tacit – reinforcing some behaviors and discouraging others, in the Toyota described by Liker and Convis, the process is far more deliberate.

It is a process of aligning to explicitly stated core values that have been in practice since the inception of the company, but only written down in 2001 as The Toyota Way 2001.

Then, because the word “leadership” often carries one of those “I know it when I see it” kinds of definitions, the authors use examples and construct a model to describe what they have observed. That model then structures the next few chapters (Yes, I peeked ahead).

Across the chapter they are describing leadership, not as something practiced by individuals, but as an interdependent ecosystem that links tightly to every aspect of the company. Certainly individuals each have their own style, but it is expressed within a context defined by commonly held beliefs and norms of behavior that combine to form what we call a “culture.”

Someone from outside that culture (such as Gary Convis coming from Ford, and other Toyota managers I have known personally), has to work hard to assimilate into it.

Outside the context of the book, I have also seen the opposite: Take someone who knows nothing but the Toyota culture and put them into a “traditional” company and many of them have a hard time adapting to a completely alien environment. The support structures they are used to are simply not there, and it can be psychologically very isolating.

One example of this contrast is in how these two systems see “Challenge.”

In a traditional company, a “challenge” is issued as a “stretch goal” and it is up to the individual to figure out on their own how to meet it. In the most extreme case of an “only results matter” environment, they may disregard their fellow team members, rules, ethics, even the law to get there. While we have spectacular examples such as Enron, there are lots of companies where “inventory targets” are met by starving off production at the end of the quarter and pulling in orders from the next.

“Challenge” is one of the explicit values in The Toyota Way 2001 but it looks quite different. Yes, there are challenges issued. But behind that challenge is a support structure. The leaders, at all levels are expected to stretch their own personal development, but to do so within the context of kaizen, deep understanding gained by genchi genbutsu, team work and most important of all, respect.

The leader’s development level is gauged by how the challenge is met even more than whether it is met. Just “get-r-done” doesn’t work here.

Once Again: What Doesn’t Work

The introduction of The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership covers ground that:

  1. Has been covered before – we know all of this.
  2. Needs to be covered again, because most people act as though we don’t know it.

Simply put, Liker and Convis (legitimately) feel the need, once again, to let us know the things which reliably fail when trying to build a sustaining culture of continuous improvement.

“So let’s train some Lean Six Sigma experts to grab the tools and start hacking away at the variability and waste that stretch out lead time; this will make us more successful, both for our customers and for our business. What could be simpler?

What indeed.

I am, once again, reminded of a saying that “People will exhaust every easy thing that doesn’t work before they try something difficult that will.”

The authors cite some of the same things that we have heard before:

  • Trying to determine ROI for each individual process step, or each individual improvement, doesn’t work.
  • Trying to motivate the right behavior with metrics and rewards doesn’t work.
  • Trying to copy the mechanics doesn’t work.
  • Trying to benchmark, and copy, a “lean company” in your business doesn’t work.

Yet, even though we have been hearing these messages for at least a decade, actually longer, I continue to encounter managers who try to work this way.

The authors assert, and I agree, that this is the result of people trying to fit Toyota’s system into a traditionally taught management paradigm that is so strong people aren’t even aware that there is a paradigm, or can’t conceive there is anything else.

They are stuck inside their threshold of knowledge when the answer is beyond it.

This reminds me of the Edwin Abbot’s 1884 story of Flatland, a two-dimensional world populated by creatures who cannot conceive of “above” and “below” their planer existence.

Although his story is often read by students struggling to grasp models with four, five and more dimensions to them, it is really a story of social change and paradigms.

Our management systems are a “flatland” with Toyota’s system existing in a space that we have to work hard to grasp. We can see pieces of it where it touches ours, but like the creatures in Flatland who only see two dimensions of three dimensional objects, we only see the pieces of TPS that we can recognize.

The TPS vs. Toyota’s Production System

Up to this point I have resisted weighing in on the Toyota quality story largely because:

  1. I don’t have anymore insight than anyone else.
  2. The signal-to-noise ratio in the story seems really low, and I didn’t feel I would contribute much.

But there is another story in the back channels of the “lean” community.

Many of us (myself included) have been holding up Toyota as an example of “doing it right,” with good reason.

Toyota, of course, has never publicly claimed to be an icon of perfection, but we have held it up as one.

Now, when their imperfections are exposed, I am seeing a backlash of sorts, questioning whether the Toyota Production System is flawed somehow. This raises some really interesting questions cutting across the principles themselves; the psychology of various groups of practitioners; and of course Toyota’s practice of “The Toyota Production System.”

Are the principles themselves flawed?

We have a whole industry built on extolling the perfection of Toyota. Now we are seeing a bit of a boomerang effect. Say it ain’t so, but believe it or not, there is a population of people out there who are pretty sick of hearing “Toyota this..” and “Toyota that…” and having themselves held up to Toyota and being told they are coming up short.

Shame on us, the lean manufacturing community, for setting that situation up, but now we have to defend the principles on merit and establish credibility for ourselves rather than using Toyota as a crutch. Hopefully the adversity will sort out some of the practitioners who are still advocating rote copy of the tools and artifacts.

So, no, the principles are not flawed, not unless you didn’t believe in scientific thinking to begin with. It is a fallacy to confuse failure to adhere to the principles with failure of the principles themselves. The truth has always been that the Toyota Production System defines an ideal, and Toyota’s practice, like everyone else’s, comes up short sometimes.

So what will happen?

I can imagine that consultants the world over are figuring out how to re-brand their offerings to show how they “close the gaps” in the Toyota Production System to go “beyond lean.”

Meanwhile, though, those who are grounded are going to have to get more grounded. Stay focused on the process, the objectives, what is happening right in front of you. Ask the same questions. Tighten up on your teaching skills because the concepts are going to have to make sense in the here and now. No longer will they be blindly accepted because “That is how Toyota does it.”


Learn how to Learn

John Shook’s latest column on is titled “Was NUMMI a Success?” He adds some interesting thought to the mix of the ongoing post-mortem on GM and NUMMI.

John argues (successfully, I think) that Toyota’s objectives for NUMMI were to learn how to take their system outside of the safe cocoon of Toyota City in Japan; and that GM’s objectives, aside from getting an idle plant going again, were to learn how to make small cars profitibly, and learn Toyota’s system.

So both companies were in the game to learn.

But Toyota had a huge advantage.

And if there’s one thing Toyota knows how to do it is how to learn, especially where it’s important down at the operational levels of the company – a characteristic that is the embodiment of the learning organization. Toyota’s biggest strength is that it [had] learned how to learn, and it was that approach to learning that defined its approach to NUMMI from day one.

Just as strong as Toyota’s advantage here, was GM’s deficit. While they clearly learned about the system, and indeed implemented pieces of it in new plants, there is no objective evidence that GM ever really “got” that this is much more than an industrial engineering model.

It is a model about continuously challenging your understanding and beliefs.

We start teaching it deep down in the process, “Why did the machine stop?” but the intent is for this thinking to find its way to the very top and learn how to ask “Why are sales 12% under projection this month?”

Toyota has learned some hard lessons about what they did not understand in the last year. I only hope we will be able to say the same about our public gamble on GM’s learning.