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Learning to Teach the Soft Side of Lean

by Tracey Richardson
April 23, 2018

Learning to Teach the Soft Side of Lean

by Tracey Richardson
April 23, 2018 | Comments (0)

A recent Wall Street Journal article about the growing number of companies finding the need to teach “soft skills” to workers who failed to learn them in high school or college reminded me of the challenges of teaching lean beyond the shop floor mechanical side.

During my long tenure as a “learner of lean” in a wide range of settings, I’ve heard many different types of analogies, metaphors and definitions that can spark misunderstandings. But if there’s one common theme among virtually any failed effort, it boils down to the inability to engage people in purpose of their work. That is, before any industry or functional area attempts (beyond manufacturing) to learn lean thinking, the people leading the work must gain the mutual trust and respect from your workers by walking the walk (going to see). 

I refer to this as the “what-how-why” model, which can be broken down as follows: Establish standards by asking what am I doing; clarify key points by asking how will it be done, and define purpose by asking why is this important? This is the mental model we desire, whether you are in an office environment, manufacturing, engineering, healthcare, education, or accounting realms. 

Non-manufacturing environments tend to be less linear and are often tagged as more difficult environments in which to teach lean thinking. That’s why, when getting started with lean in these settings, I ask 4 questions to help folks understand the thinking behind any process:

  1. Do you have people in your organization?
  2. Do you have processes that create outputs, services, or products?
  3. Do you experience problems?
  4. Do you aspire to align to a purpose/strategy?

If you answer yes to these questions, then I truly believe that purpose can be translated, and that misunderstandings can be diminished. Solid mental models can be created through mutual trust and respect and utilizing the power of your people’s ability to think. Helping people develop the capability of seeing standard work (and then seeing where and how and why abnormalities to that standard develop) is for me a key first step in sharing lean in what might be considered unlikely settings.

One such unorthodox example for me occurred through my work with a local school system in my first time as a trainer outside of my manufacturing world at Toyota right after I left my Group Leader role.  In 1999, five months after leaving Toyota (which I joined in 1988), I returned as a contractor working on a project in Human Resources Training and Development. We were partnering with the local Scott County school system in Georgetown, Kentucky. A vast number of individuals were calling in to our Human Resources department at TMMK asking where could they learn the skills that it takes to get through our hiring process (some were not meeting the expectation and were frustrated they couldn’t get hired). Leaders from the TMMK plant ending up speaking with the local Superintendent of the school system about this situation.

At the time, Toyota looked for 5 competencies (skills in listening, problem-solving, teamwork, initiative, and leadership) in their hiring process, something that I discussed in a previous post. It turned out that that the competencies TMMK looked for didn’t seem to be taught formally elsewhere. Individuals would either have relevant experience, or they would test well in initiative and the other competencies sought in a new hire (it was pass or fail).

We established that the goal of this project was to help our schools teach these competencies among our young children (K to secondary). We formed a partnership with TMMK and the local county school system, and they sent 25 teachers to our quality circle training course, which covered Meeting Facilitation, PDCA thinking, and A3. Even though at the time I had spent years learning the TPS thinking approach, I was still struggling to make the translation myself and thought that teaching it in school was a tough task.

We (Toyota-TMMK) felt that if we just taught the teachers how to problem solve using the scientific method of PDCA and conduct a meeting, then these skills could be transferred to the students, thus eliminating some our gap in the community in the future. And yet, after the first Quality Circle class the teachers came out of there with a confused look and many questions about the purpose of why they were asked to learn this.

We realized that some of our basic assumptions were off (which is what happens whenever establishing the purpose of this work is overlooked).  Many individuals in the school system resisted this work. Some people suspected that Toyota was trying to come in and run the school, while others assumed we were there to recruit little future “Toyota’ites”. Looking back, I realized this was a classic example of going into someone’s environment and trying to make change without creating an understanding of why it is important and linking the work, in a non-threatening way, to people’s daily work.

We realized that we had to re-group. It didn't mean we gave up; we just adopted a different approach. We watched, we learned, we listened, and worked hard to understand their viewpoints before discussing our own. We tried to build mutual trust and respect in our relationship with a group of individuals who didn't see the gap in the same way we did. For starters, they had Kentucky statewide standards they needed to meet, and we couldn't come in as non-educators telling them how to teach people “soft skills”.

This process of “nemawashi” (consensus, or buy-in) took several months. We decided to work with a smaller group in which both sides “listened and learned” simultaneously.  Over the course of 3 years, I helped teachers enhance their curriculum dealing with problem solving and people skills. We sought to engage students to think about their work, and to do so differently than they were used to. We assessed their progress as we would folks going through the Toyota hiring process (we were in fact amazed to see parallels between the two). As time went on we built relationships with the students, teachers, principals, and administrators in the KY Department of Education.

Progress was taking place, and we developed the capability to visualize student work in the classroom based on performance and learning in measurable ways. Word started to spread quickly that the thinking behind TPS works in schools and our children were learning to their need similar to just in time. We realized we could differentiate instruction based on student differences (leveling) versus teach to the norm.  It was coming together and to our surprise we got a million dollar 3-year federal grant (with the help of Toyota) to spread this activity across the state.  So we were affecting the classroom, teaching styles, school and central office processes- similar to a parallel of roles cascading in an organization meeting a customer need.

We introduced Hoshin thinking and cascaded that downward, feeling great that we had learned a way to translate the key ideas of TPS to a world that was so different than manufacturing—of helping people understand the purpose of children learning to think differently. This had nothing to do with Toyota at this point; we were enhancing the knowledge of children regardless of what they were interested in being in life. This was huge!

By the end of 3 years in which I had traveled across the state of Kentucky visiting grades 1-12 and even secondary schools, I had embedded myself into the school “culture” so deeply that many educators weren’t aware that I wasn’t a teacher. That was when I knew I was part of the team. I redoubled my effort to become a servant leader, with my purpose being to engage by listening, gaining buy-in, understanding their processes, and determining how to teach in a way that fostered development and learning for the greater good of our customer—the student, not Toyota’s hiring process.

Toyota was giving back to the community and state and to this day I am still friends with several educators that I trained to assist me in this program (it was called QUEST – (Quest for Useful Employment Skills for Tomorrow)).  This program later evolved to the Center for Quality People and Organizations (CQPO) where I worked with Mike Hoseus, the executive director today, where we further developed programs that enhanced teacher’s ability to translate people (or soft) skills, problem solving and teamwork. This provided our students a greater chance to perform in our ever-changing world today, and to this day it still is in existence.

Today I feel blessed to have be a part of something so evolutionary, and to think that in the beginning it was a very rough road with major resistance. I always remember this work when I think about lean outside of manufacturing. I believe this experience describes the exact thing that we all deal with when trying to share this set of ideas. And, if you pause, think, listen, and explain the “what-how-and why” of why we are embracing change, then I believe your odds are much better for success. It matters deeply that your people understand purpose.

My time in this program proved to me that Lean thinking can be translated in anywhere. Throughout my career at Toyota, the company constantly proved that I could be taught to do things I didn’t think I was capable of. I will always continue to “listen, lead and learn”, and always gain buy-in and trust; and I will always be challenged to accomplish amazing things.

Focus on your people folks! I have learned that the “people side” of lean will always trump the “tool side”, and that the way to create long term sustainability and growth is to foster people’s development and understanding. As Sakichi Toyoda states in the Toyota Way 2001 internal book: “People are the most important asset in your organization and they are the determinant of the rise and fall of it”.  So remove the pressure by explaining why your change or initiative is important, no matter what you call it or what area are you in. I promise you it will work!

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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