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Guest Post: Insights on Daily Problem Solving

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by Joe Lee

In this guest post, Joe Lee, a sensei at Lean Enterprise China and former manager at Toyota affiliate Kuozui Motors, LTD, describes his key takeaways from Michael Ballé’s recent column on daily problem solving. He also shares insights from Taiichi Ohno, chief architect of the Toyota Production System, the prototype lean management system.

Joe Lee

The two paragraphs [in the column] I like most are the ones where autonomy and the role of middle management were discussed.

In theory, the people who are more committed to learning are middle managers, but whether the learning could continue autonomously or not, is dependent upon learners grasping these learning opportunities. Let’s have a look at the examples set by Mr. Ohno:

  1. It depends on the learners themselves. More than 70 years ago, Mr. Ohno was a middle manager. With self-directed learning and trial and error, he spent 20 years developing the Toyota Production System (TPS).
  2. As Michael stated, people need to know when to flag the issue. This is much harder than it looks because most workplaces are set up to shoot the messenger, dismiss unfavourable information, and never distract the boss from his or her wishful thinking. It takes a “problem first” culture, and clear understanding of the role of middle management to fight the natural tendency to sweep the issue under the rug and walk away hoping that no one has noticed we were the first on the scene. Mr. Ohno articulated this in his "kaizen spirit" by saying, “If you know that your idea will make it better, you can’t stop implementing it. That is what we call kaizen spirit.”
  3. In relation to distracting the boss from his or her wishful thinking, Mr. Ohno also set another example. In Chapter 2 of his Toyota Production System, he wrote that “reflecting on the journey of Toyota Production System development …. it is a stage by stage gradual progression. It formed a parallel relationship between system development and my increased roles and responsibilities within the company over time.” The so-called distracting the boss from wishful thinking, is to conduct trial and error within your autonomy. Use your actual results to influence the boss’s thinking.
  4. 4. Combined with the above three, middle management has the autonomy to do many things, including coach the subordinates, influence the bosses, and change the company.

About Joe Lee

Joe Lee held a variety of management positions at Toyota affiliate Kuozui Motors, LTD, including assignments in Human Resources, Manufacturing, and teaching TPS to suppliers. To speed dissemination of TPS,  he has helped bicycle and machine tool manufacturers with implementation and translated nearly 30 important TPS monographs from English and Japanese into Chinese. Since 2015, Lee has been the sensei for co-learning groups at the Lean Enterprise China affiliate of the Lean Global Network.

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