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.