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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: If the goal is excellence then people will be stretched and it will not always be pleasant.

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I just happened to be working on yet another book in the Toyota Way series when I got this question. The book, called The Toyota Way to Excellence, is about the journey to lean by organizations outside Toyota. Believe it or not I was in the midst of writing a section called “managing change is political.” Politics is the use or abuse of power. Whether it is viewed as use or abuse depends on the perspective and interests of who is doing the viewing. To lean change agents who are trying to help the organization actualize its potential it is all use of power to achieve a noble purpose. To the subjects of change it can appear anything but noble.

Inside Toyota, going back to Ohno and his students, they were vicious. Their power came both from the formal hierarchy, their charisma, and their deep expertise. They wielded that power like a mega-battering ram and nothing stood in their way. They called people stupid using verbal and sometimes physical abuse when they believed the person did not get it. The modern incarnation of that group is the Operations Management Consulting Division (OMCD) and the new mantra is kinder and gentler. Battering rams are replaced by gentle persuasion. On the other hand everyone inside Toyota know that TPS is sacred in the company and these people from OMCD are experts. You shake a little when they are coming to see your operation and it is not always a pleasant experience.

Respect for people, like it or not, is culturally specific. Being called stupid or even struck by an Ohno disciple might be a badge of courage in one culture, hopefully there is even a bruise to show people, and criminal abuse in another. Even the students of Ohno who seemed to be abused believe passionately that he loved them and cared deeply about their development. I remember interviewing Fujio Cho who was president of Toyota at the time and he literally had a tear in his eye as he talking about how Ohno would be very tough on them during the day and then gather them together like beloved children at the end of the day. They all came out so much stronger and more confident as a result of this tough love.

Unfortunately leadership is situational and context dependent which is another way of saying “it depends.” This seems to be the best lean answer to any general question about what to do. Maybe we should get some eight ball that you can ask your question to and every face of the die that gives an answer can say: “it depends.” If the leaders personal style seems like bullying to us, but tough love that makes subordinates think, work hard, and grow perhaps that is respect and generates knowledge from the ground up. Obviously for most of the educated and enlightened masses bullying seems very negative and we prefer the kinder, gentler mentoring style. I think the acid test is whether the mentoring is real, based on true understanding and knowledge, and is effective in getting people to take on challenges and further develop themselves. The ineffective nice guy who spouts platitudes and cannot really see what is going on is not very respectful, though perhaps pleasant to be around. If the goal is excellence then people will be stretched and it will not always be pleasant.

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