My education on the Toyota Production System started almost 30 years ago, when Toyota built a new plant in Georgetown Kentucky in the late 1980’s. At the time, the company asked its long time suppliers in Japan to find US partners and teach them how to become a good supplier. The company I worked for had formed a joint venture with one of those long time Japanese suppliers, the Inoac Corporation. Our joint-venture plant in Northwest Ohio was a plastic trim and parts supplier to the US auto companies. We were not doing well financially and in fact the plant was slated for closure. Our company president at the time decided it was worth a shot to see if there was anything to be learned from the Japanese. So started our company and my education on TPS (Toyota Production System) and Lean in general.
Traditionally, Japanese companies sent engineers and technicians to their joint-ventures to do hands-on training of the TPS tools and methods. We were lucky, as Inoac also sent along an experienced production manager, Hisao Nakane, as the leader of the team. Mr. Nakane, who spoke what he called “a little” English, became our first Sensi (Teacher/Mentor). Mr. Nakane put emphasis on relationship building and creating what he termed a “Kaizen Culture” at the new joint venture. We were blessed with numerous employees at all levels who wanted to learn and tried new ideas and methods. Our people wanted an organization that combined the best of Japanese methods with the best of our American work ethic and culture.
Their thirst for learning became our slogan to “Try to do every task better today than we did yesterday”. More importantly, the guidance and technical assistance from Inoac and later Toyota helped us learn to become a good supplier who made money. In only a couple of years the plant went from being on the closure list to one of our most profitable. At the heart of this change was our Sensi Mr. Nakane. Always teaching by going to see, asking why and always showing respect. It was the combination of the lean tools with lean thinking that helped us build a successful organization over time.
My personal learning focused on trying to understand the purpose and principles behind the tools so that I could spread this success to other non-automotive divisions of our company. This attempt to understand the purpose of the tools and to see how they work in a system to create superior organizational performance has become a focus of my life for the past 30 years. And as I learned form Mr. Nakane all those years ago the role of leadership is to teach. So, a teacher I became. And since then I’ve tried to help others understand the basics of lean thinking. Not long ago I shared a Lean Post where I tried to explain “Lean in one drawing”. Like my mentor Mr. Nakane, I have tried hard to be the humble learner who teaches.
When Mr. Nakane came to help us he already had 20 years of experience with the Toyota Production System, including time as a plant manager. Many would have called him an “expert” on lean thinking and implementation. After almost seven years helping our joint venture he returned to Japan and went on to help other Inoac joint ventures around the world.
About 9 years ago Mr. Nakane called me. I had lost touch with him and hadn’t talked to him for over five years. He was in Vietnam trying to help their joint venture learn the “Kaizen Culture”, and asked if I could send him a copy of a video I had done back in the mid-1990s about our experience and transformation. I was happy and honored to send him the video and he wanted to give me a gift in appreciation. He said he would send me a book that he was studying and trying to learn. That book turned out to be Kaizen Express – Fundamentals for Your Lean Journey. This was a book that LEI’s own John Shook had helped translate into English. Most would describe this book as very basic. As Jim Womack described it “…, a volume designed to quickly explain the principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS) and how to implement them in the gemba in a logical sequence through continuous kaizen.” A book of simple cartoon style drawings.
Here was a man of great experience (35 plus years), who had been implementing lean in numerous companies and locations around the world; and yet he was trying hard to study and learn from a simple book. This is the model of the humble learner. This is what we need more of in our organizations. Fewer so called “experts” and more learners/teachers. Thank you Nakane san for being a great teacher, mentor and role model.
I’ll try and continue this tradition of learning and teaching this month in Memphis Tennessee when I teach the “Key Concepts of Lean” workshop. We’ll focus on understanding the purpose behind the tools and how they work together in a system to produce long-lasting business results. Hope to see you there.