Nema- what !? This is a frequent response I get when I use this term with clients or individuals who are on their lean journey. I would like to take a minute to just explain the word and its meaning because I feel many misuse this term/concept and sometimes getting everyone to see through the same lens is very helpful. The Japanese often used metaphors like, “prepping the soil” or “digging around the roots” for successful planting or trans-planting, some have also said “laying the groundwork”. I often describe it as gaining consensus or building support with others, sharing of ideas, engaging and involving people at the process focusing most of the time within a PDCA (Plan Do Check Action) context. So what does all these mean in our daily life or work responsibilities? Is this something we do ALL the time? Only with problems that are highly weighted to our business indicators? With certain levels of the organization? These are a few questions I get when the term is brought up. To me it should be an expectation of our role as a individual within the company,and a standardized practice in my opinion, no exceptions not to do. If you looked at the metaphor of prepping the soil, if we were planting a tree and didn’t follow the proper planting process (fertilizer and water for example) would we expect the tree to take root, grow and flourish? Think of ideas that way. If we skip parts like engaging people, then it has a higher success of failure.
In my time at Toyota, nemawashi was as common as the word kaizen (continuous improvement). You really weren’t suppose to start any problem solving activity or improvement without embedding nemawashi into that thinking process from start to finish (P to the A). Sounds easy huh? Well it’s actually a discipline and those habits aren’t usually formed easily. A high percentage of marriages end in divorce, could it be a lack of nemawashi between a couple? Imagine a life of communication and gaining consensus and buy-in with your significant other.
A common misconception I witness about the nemawashi process is that we only use it when we are getting ready to implement an idea, to communicate when something is about to change (countermeasure implementation phase – DO). I unfortunately see this much too often, I guess some attempt is better than no attempt (for example- the age old example when first shift makes a change to the process and doesn’t involve second shift, second shift comes in and says “why did this happen”? “who changed this”? – Well then it gets changed back and first shift gets upset, vicious cycle–sound familiar? The next best level is which is my favorite level to train on. Let me ask you this: When you use the nemawashi process are you trying to “convince” someone of your idea (or enforce), or are you “engaging” them for their input? Is there a difference between convincing/enforcing and engaging? I hope you say YES! Nemawashi is meant to engage people in the entire process of change or improvement from the very beginning of even framing the problem in a measurable sense, not just when you are ready to implement the idea. I could bring up political examples here but I better leave that alone. 🙂
If we only talk to our people when we are getting ready to implement we have lost out on the extraordinary potential for ideas that person may have to enhance the change and improve the process even more than we imagined, we must consider them the professionals with all the valuable information, enforcing something at this point goes against our human nature no one likes to “told” anything. As Confucius said, “tell me and I will forget, show me and I might remember, involve me and I will understand”. So if we involve them at the beginning of the problem we are more than likely going to learn much more about the value stream or process than just getting their input at the end.
Let’s take for example a model change process at Toyota. This happens every 5 years in most cases. It is an example I believe that requires nemawashi from the sketching of the design to making the first car online 5 years later. Many large and small scale PDCA cycles must take place in order for the launch to be successful. Toyota is able to do a rolling model change, meaning they never shut the line down to bring a new model to the line. Many companies in the past have “shutdown weeks” in order to roll out the new car. I have seen as little as 10-20 car lengths in between a model change at TMMK (Toyota Motor Manufacturing KY) to translate that its about 10-20 minutes of time. Now that doesn’t mean they have 20 minutes to change everything out, that just means that the nemawashi has been so successful with communication, buy-in and consensus (prepping the soil) at every level that a minimal amount of buffer is needed to ensure we are truly ready. Can you imagine the success rate if we didn’t start this process at the beginning of the sketching? What if we designed the standardized work without every involving the person who was doing it? How successful would that be? Unfortunately it happens.
When it comes to daily problem solving as a leader we should be at the process asking questions, gaining consensus about what should be happening versus what is happening. We are allowing and empowering each person to take ownership and responsibility to communicate their ideas or best practices, without that you have a very chaotic, reactive, and reluctant workforce. If I try to enforce the standards instead of people being a part of creating the standards then I would say the chances of your workforce having a low morale is very high. I often view it in these terms (learned from my trainers at Toyota) – When your work is engaging then it can become your passion, when something is merely drudgery it can become your prison. Are you in prison? Are you creating a prison environment by not engaging your people? To me without the daily practice of nemawashi at all levels of the organization (horizontal and vertical) and within all the steps of the PDCA beginning with the framing of the problem, then breaking down the problem, gaining consensus on the process, finding the point of occurrence within the process, then asking why and formulating countermeasures then you are missing out on the talent and wisdom of your people. Don’t short change your company by trying to convince them, engage them always!