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Are Lean Managers Teaching Or Just Controlling?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I hear what you lean guys are saying about, learning, “kata” and the role of managers as teachers. But in my years at Toyota I was never taught much. I learned a lot, but what my manager would mostly do is check the details of what I did and ask a lot of questions. I felt that it was very controlling.

Thank you for your remark, which certainly echoes what other people who have worked for Toyota comment on. Not having worked there myself, I have no definite idea on how much control is involved in Toyota’s management culture, but, from the outside, I do suspect it’s quite an important component. Let me try to respond to your thought by investigating the relationship between teaching and controlling.

Let’s say that at the Gemba, performance is the outcome of the “best” process being performed by the “best” people. Since nothing is ever perfect, the “best” process is sought by constant kaizen, and the “best” people are developed by on-going training. The virtuous circle sought by lean management is that on-the-job training fosters ideas for kaizen and process improvement, and kaizen efforts are key to learning and individual progress in understanding the nuances of the job and how to hone one’s skills. (The opposite is a vicious circle in which a lousy rigid process punishes and demotivates people, so they do their job badly which, in turn, worsens the process further and so on).

The central point is that performance is the outcome of a dynamic relationship between performing the job as best we know and improving the process. The best process in the world won’t deliver the results if the people aren’t skilled enough to handle it, and the best in class people can’t succeed in a broken process. You need both.

Everyone Matters

Let’s reflect more on the training aspect of this dynamic relationship. Most of our mental images about teaching are from our memories of school or the experience we have teaching our own kids: lessons have to be learned. Kids are supposed to “learn” as their full-time job and play the rest of the time. They don’t work, as we do, at repetitive actions that need to be executed for a specific result. They’re also a lot more tolerant and less set in their ways than adults.

Adults, on the other hand, typically have a job in which they need to successfully carry out a task, very often a repetitive one – even though maybe, being an operator on a production line is rather extreme in that respect. But your executive assistant (should you have one) will need to repetitively organize your diary, deal with people seeking to talk to you, organize your travelling, open the mail that gets to your office, plus all sorts of added ad hoc tasks. Even as an executive, succeed for the company as a whole to perform. Indeed, a key aspect of “respect” in the lean sense is recognizing that every single person in the company matters and contributes to overall performance. But where is the learning in that?

Contrarily to common wisdom adults can learn, will learn, and also enjoy it – but adult learning is very different from kids’ learning. Adults have a solid baggage of experience, busy lives with little time to spare, and, yes, admittedly, less flexible minds. Where do we start?

Start Here

First, what do adults learn? Adult learning is goal-oriented. Adults find it extremely hard to pick up an entirely new skill, and they seldom succeed at it (as my woeful attempts to pick up the guitar in middle-age have shown). On the other hand, adults will focus on a specific skill that they feel can help their job, and try hard to improve that – and even enjoy it. Consequently, as a manager, if you want your staff to learn on the job, you need somehow to define the purpose – the goal of the learning effort. Failing that, they’ll choose what they individually feel they’d like to learn, which is rarely what they need to learn. If you’re not aligned on this, much unfortunate misunderstandings and conflicts will later arise.

I was recently visiting an engineering department where the department head wanted to teach a younger engineer how to anticipate plastic deformation in the molding process (something to do with calculating the differential shrinkage in the cooling process). The engineer wanted to learn new functionalities in the design software. This conversation was not going well.

A lean approach to managing and teaching would have helped. The lean way to align intentions is to define with the staff an indicator that reflects the purpose of the job we’re trying to do as best as possible. This is never easy and should not be taken for granted. For example, counting customer complaints is not the same as counting bad parts at final inspection. Counting customer complaints is about learning to respond better to customer’s dissatisfaction, whereas counting rejects at final inspection is about improving the process’ right-first-time capability. Both are linked, of course, and both are most likely necessary, but the intent, and therefore the learning goal are very different. In the previous case, the engineering supervisor had not worked out with the engineer a specific target of scrapped parts for the project, and was having a hard time grabbing the guy’s attention.

Now, adults legitimately are interested in what they’re interested in: you can’t pick for them what should interest them, and chances are they’ll be interested in very different things from what you’d like them to be. As a result, frequent discussions about the indicator you’ve picked, how it behaves, why, and what people are doing about it are key to foster interest. Yes, this is certainly controlling behavior, and it can easily backfire if you fail to align their interests with yours. But, ultimately, sharing purpose is about constantly repeating the conversation about “How are customer complaints?” “What is the OTD?” “Are we reducing lead-time?” and so on. This will never be “acquired,” or “ingrained,” or “become part of the culture.” It’s a conversation that needs to happen, always.

When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Second, how do adults learn? Mostly by practice. Practice, however does not mean mindlessly repeating the same task until you get it right. Practice means having a clear idea of the right outcome versus all the wrong ways of doing the job first. And secondly, having an understanding of what you’re trying to do in order to steer the practical action towards the desired result.

Learning occurs through the process of shuttling between abstract thinking (the toolkit of rules that can be applied in new situations) and data mining (dredging detailed information from our vast store of specific knowledge). As we grow older, we get worse at remembering all the details, but we get much better at seeing and using patterns. Essentially, learning comes from modeling a situation time and time again until the back-and-forth toggle between principle and specific generate new insight/competencies (both appear together).

Practice, as such, is hard to do without someone who micro-corrects the activity towards the relevant detail of where something goes wrong. On their own, people can repeat the same activity for years, stumbling on the very same problem without seeing the relevant detail. This is why musicians or athletes keep getting coaching even though they’re at the top of their game. The coach’s role is both to correct the micro-step (pull your wrist in) and to steer discussions on the high-level rules (hold a mental image of the chi flowing through the universe). This, again, is very controlling.

The engineering department head was trying to go through his junior’s calculation and point out hidden assumptions. The younger engineer felt he was being picked on unfairly and was so busy brewing internally, he wasn’t hearing anything much.

You Are a Role Model

Which leads us to the third question: why do people learn? Teaching through practice is in fact very controlling. This is tricky because, in order to learn, people also need to feel their efforts are self-directed and that they can learn in their own way at their own pace, for their own reasons.

Acquiring practice requires both drive and determination. You have to want to put yourself through a regimen of repeated attempts and constant criticism from your teacher. Why would you do that to yourself? And at work on top of it? The third component here is role modeling. In a work environment, in order to put up with the controlling dimension of teaching, employees need to accept (consciously or not) their manager as a role model. This is not an unrealistic expectation as most people compare themselves with the reference group of others who occupy the role to which they aspire, and so it’s not unrealistic to expect employees to look up to their manager for guidance in values and behavior. The difficulty is to translate this into acceptance of narrow teaching on specific skills.

In order to create the conditions for adult learning, the manager must ask himself or herself why his or her staff would accept detailed corrections about how they do things. In the case I was witnessing today, the young engineer clearly – rightly or wrongly (I don’t know them well enough to have an opinion) didn’t look up to his manager. As a result, he was simply being subservient in the conversation, and not taking much in: he wasn’t learning.

The lean management framework attempts to address this difficulty by stating explicitly that the frontline supervisor’s job is to give eight hours of standardized work to the team members. People are required to learn the standards, and, furthermore, the emphasis on work standards and kaizen creates a working environment where detailed investigation of work and confirmation is expected. But still, the question remains, what does it take for a manager to be accepted in this role by his subordinates. Technical competence? Empathy?

A Right to Succeed

Ultimately, acceptance hinges on intention. People will be tolerant of many faux pas if they are convinced that the manager truly means well and that he or she has the development of staff at heart, and is not simply squeezing the lemon to get all the juice. In the lean framework, this is the value that we try to convey through the various dimension of “respect”: every one counts, and every one has a right to succeed – which means that managers have to listen and work hard to take away all barriers to doing the job right (mainly muri, mura, and muda).

Ultimately, real teaching (as opposed to telling just so stories) is quite controlling: it’s about checking how the student is doing and then stopping and correcting him or her as they go so that they actually learn from their mistakes (saving it for the end of the process and dishing out all mistakes at once is a far less effective way of teaching). Furthermore, teaching also involves picking the topics people need to learn, not want to learn, which is controlling as well. In the end, the real difference is not the act of teaching or controlling itself, but how it’s perceived by the learner: is it for your benefit, or theirs?

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Steven Kiebach July 24, 2012
  I really find this article extremely helpful as I think about leadership & lean mgmt a lot.  Just as I think about all the "teaching", "controlling", and "discipline" that occurs with Olympic Athletes...we all need some of that.  But it needs to exhibit positive constructive feedback; a respect amongst teacher and student.   

  I myself don't have the real opportunity to work in a lean envinronment (let alone have a lean manager).  My boss is controlling but not for respect of the employee, purposes of Kaizen, or for growth in learning.  More just for their well being & what they they "think" is best for you in regards to their goals.  

  What I perceive here (and maybe I'm totally wrong & correct me rightfully so) is the strong importance of Hoshin, Kaizen, and Hansei playing a key role in the organization (through a powerful source like PDCA).  These "Controlling" managers want you to succeed and they will ensure that you are on the path that links strategy, continuous improvement, and self reflection into a continual path towards perfection (value to the customers, wisdom to the workers, & a solid foundation to the processes).  I guess I'm jealous of those on the path of lifelong PDCA. 

Michael Ballé July 27, 2012

Hi Steve,

You're absolutely correct, and it is a difficult issue. So much in lean depends on the manager's intentions because overall, the tools are very similar in whatever approach you use. If people trust your intention to do well by them and to teach them to find more meaning in their work, then everything gets a lot easier - but that intention is unfortunately quite rare as most managers worry first about what would be good for them. Human nature :)

Jorge B Wong August 3, 2012

If you have learned a martial art -aikido, boxing, kung-fu, etc- YOU will be closely instructed and directed (controllled) by cifu or a sensei. Later by you teaching and controlling others, you will perfec your art.

The question by the former Toyota employee contains the answer:

He/She: "learned a lot"

The manager: "checked the details" - most of the time.

The manager: "asked a lot of questions." 


The employee benefited greatly: "learned a  lot" .

The manager was a true teacher: he/she checked the details most of the time and he asked lots of questions.  So the manager used the most effective (not necessarily the most time-efficient) teaching /learning method for adults: the Socratic Mehtod.

The Socratic method is to help people think and reflect by themselves by asking a lot of questions, but chiefly why's.  Such a method will develop in the pupil critical thinking, capability to grasp the situation and deep understanding of underlying causes.

I wish I had more professors asking me more and deeper questions at graduate school.



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