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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: 5 Levels of Mastery

By Art Smalley, - Last updated: Sunday, January 17, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Peter Senge asks a tough but fair question regarding discovery of the depth of the personal commitment it takes to lead successful change and how do you teach that reality. In all honesty I don’t think any person or organization has discovered a bullet proof answer to this question. I know for a fact that Toyota struggles with this problem especially recently in their organization. Even back in the 1980’s and 1990’s internally many in Toyota were fretting about the fact it was growing too rapidly and that it was increasingly difficult to teach the next generation. Today the problem is even more pressing.

While I was at Toyota learning TPS was viewed as a sort of an apprenticeship program. There was not much class room training involved at all. My boss Tomoo “Tom” Harada was a young engineer at Kamigo engine plant when Taiichi Ohno was still its founding plant manager. The engine plant was viewed as the model for people seeking to learn all aspects of TPS since it involved heavy casting, forging, machining, some light stamping, and full engine assembly. From equipment to complex material flow to robots and to people it had a bit of everything.

Responding to a question I once asked, Tom remarked to me that he thought I would complete my basic education of TPS on the machining lines at Kamigo in about seven years. I asked him how long it took him to really understand TPS and he replied about seven years. I asked how long it took to get really good at it and he thought that he was proficient at all the tasks required of him as an engineer and a manager in about 20 years. I asked him what was left and he remarked, “I still am learning frankly and I don’t know how to teach it very well at all”.

In order to better explain Tom’s answer let me outline the five levels of mastery framework that was frequently touted inside of Toyota when I was still an employee. There are multiple versions of this framework as you can imagine so don’t be surprised if you have seen a different one.

Levels of Mastery

  1. 知る / To know of or to have heard the concepts
  2. 分かる / To know and really understand the concepts
  3. 出来る / To be able to do on your own very well
  4. やりつける / To do continuously very well over time (and show improvement)
  5. 教える / To be able to do and to teach it well to others

On a scale of 1 to 5 with five being the highest score Toyota veterans discussed the levels of “knowing”, “understanding”, “being able to do”, “continuously improving”, and being able to do as well as be able to “teach” others. I thought that this was a healthy way to look at skills development and progression. Personal improvement is a sort of analog function that wanders and varies over time. It is not as simple as going from point A to point B. And things like class room training frankly are only good enough to get you to level one. To get to level two you had to get your hands dirty and learn by doing usually initially struggling and failing a bit in the process. Even those that eventually became very good at it (e.g. level 4) often could not lead and instruct others (level 5) as that required another set of skills.

In hindsight Toyota put lots of emphasis on learning by doing and personal experience. The upside is that by the time I joined the company it had a healthy respect for the difficulty of change and improvement process. Just like not everyone who plays golf is going to become the next Tiger Woods not everyone who attempts TPS or Lean will become great either. It takes tremendous time, commitment, coaching, and the right set of experiences in order to attain excellence. We seem to know this fact to be true in competitive sports for example but often forget it in corporate affairs where attending a half day training session is viewed as evidence of personal mastery of a topic…

I realize I have digressed a bit from Mr. Senge’s question but the long and short of it is that Toyota had no set answer to the question in my opinion. From experience the company had respect for the inherent difficulty in transforming and improving processes and tried to convey that importance over the years to each generation. Its only answer at the time was to make people experience the difficulty of operational improvement hands on and continually expose them to this reality time and time again in some fashion. For example requiring employees early on in their career to conduct shop floor production line duty, execute structured and difficult problem solving tasks, implement kaizen activities, lead various forms of small project managements tasks, and extensive mentoring were all part of the standard recipe I suppose. From there bigger assignments and challenges were given. From these tasks we all took similar lessons about the difficulty of leading change and improving and the level of commitment it took to become really good at anything. Critical feedback on performance was part of the process as well.

Unfortunately as Toyota has learned even with this sort of common training and set of experiences, etc. there is no guarantee that people will learn well enough or be as good as the previous generation. Also as in any apprenticeship model you tend to be only as good as your “sensei” or instructor. Twenty years have passed since I asked Tom Harada about how long it took him to learn TPS and become proficient. Now I finally understand his reply with proper appreciation.

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