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Jeff Liker

Jeff liker: Can the Toyota Way become Self Sustaining?

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

You have some overweight friends and even children who eat junk food and do not exercise.  You discover a new fitness program that is the perfect blend of exercise and diet.  You enjoy what you are eating and you feel better than ever in your life.  You wish to share the wealth and convince your children and friends to follow that fitness program.  You manage to convince them to come to a “blitz” event at the fitness center where they introduce the training regime and you have a healthy meal.  They will then prescribe a diet and schedule biweekly exercise.  Some of your friends are not interested.  You require it of your children.  There is some success in the short term, but over time your children whine about going and you give up and only one of your friends continues on and thanks you for the biggest favor of her life.

Now substitute bringing a lean program to a company for the fitness program.  You set up a cell and standardized work and a visual counter of takt.  You set up visual metrics boards.  Productivity doubles and quality improves for the short term, but over time the team does not update or follow the standardized work.  There are late deliveries.   Quality slips.  What happened?  We thought lean was supposed to be the solution.  We had the perfect program.  Where did we go wrong?

We went wrong in some psychological phenomena in which we have compartmentalized the world in an inappropriate way.  We are not surprised that our friends and family gave up on the fitness program.  After all they are humans.  Fitness is tough work and requires a great deal of discipline.  Only a few unusual people love to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly.  Yet, it is different at work.  Work is an organized, structured place and we are getting paid to do as we are told.  If management introduces a lean program, we set up the perfect program, and we have the right systems, then people should follow like sheep to slaughter.

Well surprise, surprise!  There are people at work too and they think and act pretty much the way they do at home.  They do not like disciplined procedures, even the ones they helped create.  They do not like to have to come to work and think deeply about problems.  On the other hand, if somehow you can get them to do what is right and healthy they will feel good about it and thank you every day.

So how do we turn this around, and get people to do what does not come naturally? Toyota has an answer to that.  It is called leadership.  I have seen time and again in Toyota factories in America a serious decline in following standardized work, updating standardized work, making serious thoughtful suggestions, and even following detailed quality procedures.  It has happened in every Toyota plant at some point—it seems to be about ten years in plants that have grown rapidly and lost well-developed leaders through attrition.  The answer in each case was for Toyota to send over some Japanese to work with senior management and reinvigorate the leadership.

The initial focus is on senior management leading middle management to do kaizen on the floor and quickly this shifts to the group leader level.  The group leader is the key pivot point of the system.  A strong group leader will maintain the momentum of getting people to do on a daily basis what does not come naturally.  Pull out the group leader and the system will decay.  The group leader can only motivate a certain number of people so they need team leaders to support them.  The ratio of effective daily coaching ideally is one leader per five team members.

If Toyota knows this why do they have these dips in the Toyota Way?  Is this a result of growing too fast?  Mathematically the more people you add to the company the greater the probability of variability in leadership.  That is particularly true if you are adding people faster than you are developing them.  My coauthor, Gary Convis, at one time the highest ranking American manufacturing executive for Toyota, estimates it takes ten years to really get the Toyota Way into a strong, capable leader’s blood—one who has been selected because they are inclined in that direction to begin with.  If you grow dramatically in ten years by bringing in people from the outside there is not enough time to develop enough leaders.  So is it a mistake to grow too fast?  How fast is too fast?  There are also business considerations and when there is demand for your product it is a tough decision to ignore that demand and essentially ration out cars.  On the other hand some say they should have grown at the speed at which they could continue to develop the leaders in the right way even if it meant losing major opportunities for sales.

Now most other companies we work with are absolutely anemic when it comes to having a high proportion of highly developed lean leaders as a ratio of total managers.  If in a one thousand person plant we had one dozen top notch lean leaders most of us would feel very lucky indeed.  That is a ratio of 83 people who need daily coaching for each lean leader.  So it is going to take more time.  Those 83 people have to coach and develop others to the point where they can coach and develop others.  If it takes ten years for one cycle imagine how many years of dedicated effort it will take.

It also seems to matter most who the very top leader(s) are.  They seem to have disproportionate power and influence to either build the culture or destroy it.  We have all seen cases of a wonderfully budding lean culture and the company gets bought out in an acquisition; out with the old, in with the new, start the decay in culture.  So as we learned from Jim Collins in Good to Great the top leader of a great company must develop a pool of potential successors, and have a succession plan, including how to prevent a takeover or buyout.

Toyota is facing perhaps the greatest crisis in its history, but its strength remains in its senior leadership that has been developed in the Toyota way.  When it comes to the percent of highly developed leaders, they have an embarrassment of riches compared to other companies.  This is why I believe (and pray) they will get through this, and even come out stronger.

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