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Leading and Learning the Toyota Way

by Tracey Richardson
June 24, 2013

Leading and Learning the Toyota Way

by Tracey Richardson
June 24, 2013 | Comments (9)

I vividly remember the moment I was promoted to management at TMMK (Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky). My Japanese trainer came up to me, shook my hand, and asked me, “Tracey san, do you realize the expectation as a leader?” I thought it might be a trick question for a moment, but then I remembered my experience on the production floor observing other leaders at TMMK and nodded yes. He gazed back at me and said, “Please understand that as a leader you must now spend 50% of your time developing your people!”

I was still a little perplexed as to how I was going to do this. How would I make time for staff meetings? Answer calls? Take care of HR issues? Keep up with visual management, evaluations, key performance indicators? Maintain budgets? So on and so on. Had I taken on more than I could handle?

Many managers find themselves fire-fighting day-in, day-out. Unfortunately, some companies even promote based on how many fires get put out the quickest. This management style achieves short-term gains at best and slowly eats at company culture and team morale. It also sends employees the wrong message about how work gets done. I don’t think any manager would want their team members fire-fighting on a regular basis, but so often this is the leadership style that gets modeled for others. How do we remedy this? How do we gain knowledge and experience and train others to do the same simultaneously?

When I first took on more responsibility as a manager at TMMK, I felt the need to always have the answers. Isn’t the leader supposed to know everything?! I remember my trainer reassuring me, “It’s ok not to have all the answers or even to fail along the way.” Mostly he wanted to make sure the mistakes we made were learned from and not repeated. He reminded me that regardless of my level or role, I should always be “leading and learning.” No matter a leader’s experience level, there will always be opportunities to learn. The key—which I believe is the essence of how Toyota does business—was this: “As a leader, you must always study harder than your subordinates!” In the early startup phases at TMMK we were all leading and learning at the same time. Our trainers were trying to teach us a new way to think in a different language while we worked to set up systems, lines, and standards. And all of this was happening while newly promoted leaders were trying to learn their new role and teach others. We were building many new muscles at once, practicing how to think systematically, and teaching others how to do the same.

As an consultant/instructor, I still practice this type of thinking: leading and learning. Do I always have the right answers? No. Will I make mistakes? Of course. But my goal is always to study hard, listen, learn, and engage others. By doing this I practice my own cycles of continuous improvement myself so I can share my new wisdom immediately. As leaders, we must constantly find ways to teach and lead through our actions, not just our ideas. These actions should be in line with a PDCA-mindset that supports our business plan/true north. When this is our guiding principle, when we are genuinely willing to learn and engage alongside team members in service of our true north, we are building a culture where people truly are the organization’s most important asset. This is that 50% rule my trainer was telling me about!

This is hard work, but if as a leader you are comfortable in your role then you probably aren’t challenging yourself or others enough. In all of my roles at Toyota, my goal was to just be one step ahead at all times. My leader did the same with me. This cascaded down through the organization. There was no room for complacency when the discipline was everyday-everybody-engage people in problem solving. On the other hand, this took pressure off of me because being present on the floor (at the gemba) involving, engaging, and challenging people pushed me to ask the right questions and develop others’ thinking. And believe it or not, people started to mimic my actions as I mimicked the actions of my leader. This is how you “grow” more leaders.

Finally, leading and learning as a way of managing at TMMK was an expectation of our job, not a choice. This is a disconnect I see with companies trying to embed Lean; it’s viewed as this “add-on” program rather than an expectation and discipline. When we try to label Lean as something special, it loses its potential. In the late '80s we didn’t call Lean anything, we just lead by our actions, which we knew had to support the business. Does Lean really need a label other than “doing our job?”

If you want to really lead and work for your people—I often teach about how Lean is a form of servant leadership—then you must demonstrate leadership at the gemba in real time, asking questions and understanding the current situation. Pass this mentality on to other leaders and subordinates. This is the key to success not only for you as the leader, but for the organization as a whole. Leading and learning creates long-term organizational sustainability through continuous improvement.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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9 Comments | Post a Comment
Alan Severance June 21, 2013
6 People AGREE with this comment
Great job of sharing your feelings and your insight as a new leader.  You really "get it", which is the most important part, because this is the part that is hard for some people to pick up in training and impossible for some even on the job.

It's like learning a language.  Some people have to constantly translate to themselves in their heads and some people become fluent and think in the new languange.

Keep up the good work!

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Doug June 26, 2013
Yes, I agree, great comment.   I think true servant leadership is key.   So I'd be interested in learning if/how others have applied servant style leadership in Manufacturing environments.   My experience is that we can't use the term "servant" but certainly can help them understand what thinking and behaving this way can do for WCM organizations.

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Hollie Jensen June 26, 2013
4 People AGREE with this comment

To move from leaders as "fixers" to leaders as "teachers" it requires us to be learners on a journey getting smarter and  better all of the time.  A huge step in the learning process is teaching others.  So, if you think of teaching/developing others as part of your learning journey as well as their's, it will be what you DO - not something on the side or additional work. 

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Doug Gerry June 26, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great article and again focusses me that leaders have a huge part to play in creating an environment where it is seen to be engaging to solve problems. I have tried to put many aspects of TPS in place in my workplace but I guess if you have never worked at a Toyota facility like me  there will always be a part of the puzzle missing. I think the teaching and learning aspect of following some simple qustions at leader to team member is great place to start.

How do you do this work

How do you know you are doing it correctly

How to you know the outcome will be defect free

What do you do if you have a problem

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kevin Wang July 02, 2013
good article. i'm interesting in some detail.thanks.

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Jim Martin June 26, 2013
thank you for sharing. I am beginning to implement Lean in a manufacturing environment that previously was very command and control, silo arranged, unengaged workforce environment. I believe the approach of servant leader will help focus my efforts on both technical and cultural aspects at the same time.

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Deborah Catchings June 27, 2013

Thanks Tracey.  I have been following you through Lean and I have learned alot.  Your article speaks to the manufacturing audience but I read and transfer as much as possible to the health care setting.  This article is really good due to the selection of a new Chief in my department.  I have taken Yellow Belt and Green Belt and continually look for ways to improve my department.  Yes, I am only a Program Support but hey what does a Program Support do--We SUPPORT the PROGRAM.  Thanks for the information and guidance.



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Andy Appleyard June 28, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Thank you Tracey.
I too have a similar story when first promoted to senior manager level at Nippondenso (Toyota 1st tier). My Director advised me to ".. spend a 1/3 of my time managing today, 1/3 improving today and a 1/3 planning for tomorrow". These words of wisdom have stayed with me ever since.

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Drew Kuhn July 01, 2013


Great post.  I am comforted in knowing the constant feeling of tension to know more is a good place to be and a leadership characteristic that is speaking to me (and hoepfully others) to challenge our thinking and desire to get to the source of problems. You never finished the story, how did you send 50% of your time developig others?  I am going to go with my own experience and that it takes the dedication, passion and persistence that goes above and beyond.

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