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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Nemawashi is about genuinely being interested in the ideas of others

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Nemawashi was one of the distinguishing characteristics of Japanese management written about a great deal in the early 1980s when the Japanese seemed like an unstoppable business force that could do no wrong.  Over time as the “Japanese miracle” led to the lost decade, and it was no longer fashionable to imitate Japanese management fads it seemed to have become lost from discussions about business best practices.  At Toyota it has remained very important.

For example, in the 1990s at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan they became aware that the American managers did not have a deep understanding of the Toyota Way management philosophy.  They developed a number of training courses as countermeasures.  At the heart was teaching “practical problem solving”–a way of approaching problems in order to continuously improve processes and develop people.  They quickly realized that there was a logical sequence of learning.  One core skill was nemawashi.  What it means is that when a person makes a formal proposal for change they should do their homework.  They should deeply understand the problem from multiple points of view, collect relevant data, try to understand the root cause, and develop many possible countermeasures before selecting one for trial.  The individual who is leading some effort to propose something or improve something or develop a plan has the responsibility of doing this homework.  An A3 report is one expression of that deep thinking process and also a tool for getting many points of view on each box in the A3 from problem definition to further action beyond the countermeasures tested–every step of the plan-do-check-act process.

Nemawashi is really the process for getting broad input at every step of the way.  In the process the responsible person is building agreements and a kind of consensus.  Consensus does not happen effectively in meetings when there are many social dynamics going on.  Another part of this is one-on-one meetings or small group meetings which can be much deeper and much more focused than large group meetings.   The result of effective use of nemawashi is that by the time a proposal is made, the problem is clearly defined, the root cause is identified, there is a well developed business case, there has probably been a trial, and all the decision makers have had their say.  Thus the actual decision making in a meeting can take 5-10 minutes.  The decision for all practical purposes a was already made before the meeting.

I know a number of Americans working for Toyota who struggled with nemawashi.  They felt they had done their homework and had a good plan, so getting the fifth and sixth person to review their problem solving and give input was wearing and it was hard to believe it would lead to new insights.  And sometimes it did not.   But it seemed much more often the person responsible for the project learned things they did not expect and broadened their view of the problem, possible causes, possible countermeasures and how to apply the countermeasures. Of course getting this input up front also made implementation go much more smoothly.

So nemawashi is not lobbying to sell your ideas as much as genuinely being interested in the ideas of others.  It is checking every stage of the plan-do-check-act process to get a broad range of ideas to prevent being blind sided by your own personal biases.  It is also engaging others to build a team that will execute the plan with enthusiasm.

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