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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: My Lesson from Director Nakamura

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

I think the long term maintenance of any system is fairly difficult. In Toyota’s case we are seeing that even very good companies can stumble and struggle to maintain their previous levels of performance. I don’t know if the right analogy here is a fad diet as Jeff Liker alluded to or perhaps the 12 steps of AA? In either case as Michael points out the first step is establishing that there is a problem and being willing to talk about it.

For all my time in Toyota I never really thought that Toyota’s problem solving methods were all that superior to anything else in the world. In fact I was usually surprised by how simple and basic things were kept. However what did impress me was the systematic attention and focus around getting to root causes and then establishing recurrence prevention. Often this is a very elusive battle.

From time to time I had to translate at Toyota for plant managers and various members of the board of directors. I remember vividly one such encounter where there was a break in a session and the head of Tsutsumi plant operations suddenly had to confer with the General Manager of Quality Control. I asked if I should excuse myself from the room and he motioned me to stay and remain seated.

I don’t remember the exact details but the QC GM had the unfortunately task of explaining to Director Nakamura that several dozen defective vehicles has gotten past all forms of inspection and been detected somewhere downstream outside the plant. Fortunately they did not reach any customers. For about 15 minutes I observed Director Nakamura grill the QC GM exactly how this had happened. What exactly was the problem? What failed in the system? What was the real root cause?

The QC GM did his best to answer the questions and you could tell he had personally visited the source of the problem first hand by he way he responded. However no matter how well he described the problem and the root cause Director Nakamura would not be satisfied. Finally time ran out for the break and some visiting dignitaries started to return to the meeting room. Director Nakamura’s final words to the GM were direct and to the point. He said with a rising voice, “I know you can define the problem. I know you even have a grasp on the root cause. What I want answered by you is how you will prevent this from EVER HAPPENING AGAIN! Come back with this answer tomorrow!”

It took a while for the message behind this to sink in for me. Problem solving is difficult enough to begin with…most people struggle to even define a problem in proper terms let alone solve one. Getting to root cause insights is even harder. The hardest thing however that leaders must constantly push is the theme of recurrence prevention and a low tolerance for repeated problems. Director Nakamura went on to become President of Toyota Kyushu and is now retired. I think that to some extent managers have to behave as he did that day. Not by screaming at people but by pushing them to the limits of their thinking and beyond. Unless you come up with both root cause insights and recurrence prevention countermeasures the problem will simply return or multiply. Somewhere I worry that even Toyota has lost some of this lesson over time.

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