When my family and I moved to Japan in January of this year, I set out with intention to embrace this opportunity to learn as much as possible about Japan, how businesses are run in Japan, and Japanese healthcare. My first half-year was a combination of experiential learning and developing relationships that will give me opportunities to go to the gemba and continue to learn in the year to come. After spending the summer in the U.S., I’ve just arrived back in Tokyo and am excited to jump back into these experiences.
Sometimes when we know a process, culture, or organization too deeply, we struggle to view things as they actually are or we leap to “answers” based on our prior experiences. When we are a near complete outsider – as I’ve been in Japan so far – we are able to see things without as many preconceived notions of “how it should be done” or without assumptions based on established cultural norms.
Without knowledge of the environment, it can be easier to stay in true “humble inquiry,” as defined by Edgar Schein, and ask questions to which we really do not know the answer. Granted, we all bring assumptions to the table in any experience, but as an outsider, we have the unique perspective of fresh eyes.
I’ve talked with several U.S. health care organizations, for example, who regularly send their leaders to Japan on lean study trips. They say the greatest value of these trips is having them visiting non-healthcare organizations. There are two reasons for this. First, very few healthcare organizations in Japan use lean thinking beyond project-based problem solving; they’re not at the organizational transformation stage. The more important reason, from the perspective of these healthcare organizations, is that tour participants get caught up in looking at the details of healthcare processes, rather than look at processes through a lean learning lens. They become healthcare insiders, losing objectivity and focusing too much on the process of delivering healthcare (such as “how many days has this hospital not had an infection?”) rather than learning about lean management.
An Outsider with Intention
While I’m an outsider in this country by nature of not having lived in Japan or studied Japanese prior to this year, I have been intentional about trying not to remain a complete outsider. I’m learning the language and have actively sought out local experiences, and I have been intentional about checking my assumptions and leverage my “fresh eyes” to “go see, ask why, and show respect“ (as Mr. Cho, former Toyota Chairman, famously has said about the fundamental philosophy of Toyota leadership).
Even if we are an “insider”, how can we be intentional about not letting our prior knowledge influence our ability to see what is happening right now? I don’t want to remain a complete outsider while I live in Japan, but as I learn more of the Japanese language and culture, I want to remain intentional about keeping my outsider’s perspective and objectivity.
My Top 5 Initial Reflections
As an outsider with intention visiting primarily non-healthcare organizations in Japan (with an eye towards process), here are my top five observations and reflections. I welcome your insights as well.
- Lean isn’t inherently Japanese. It’s not easy for the Japanese, just as it isn’t easy in other cultures. Lean really is a blend of Western and Japanese cultures and practices – as it was from the beginning when Kiichiro Toyoda came to the U.S. to learn about automotive and management principles and brought them back to Japan. In many ways, some aspects we consider foundational to lean thinking (developing people as problem solvers, leader-as teacher) are counter to traditional Japanese business practices. Toyota and other lean thinking companies are unique in Japan, as are organizations in the West who practice deep lean thinking.
The Toyota Production System in some ways is a countermeasure for a “command and control” authoritarian leadership style, a culture of rigid rule following, and fear of failure. On the other hand, some principles and habits may be easier in the Japanese culture. Kata (routines) are common in everyday life, from pouring tea to exchanging business cards to the sport of sumo. Traits such as adherence to standard work and diligence to constantly improve one’s job may be easier due to the culture of compliance and seeking perfection.
- It’s human nature to resist change, or at least to feel uncomfortable with it. I was reminded of this at the Kyushu Toyota plant tour where I saw a video explaining the history of the Toyota Production System. When Taiichi Ohno first tried to implement new management principles of Just-in -Time and Jidoka to the Toyota employees, it wasn’t easy because “people were reluctant to give up their old processes.” This quote really resonated with me. Change is hard! Ohno had to be out on the floor and support this people to overcome their resistance to the new management approach.
- Lean thinking seems to be primarily found in manufacturing organizations in Japan, not services or office environments. My professional background is in healthcare in the U.S. and Australia, and I’ve been deeply involved in leading lean transformation in healthcare organizations for nearly a decade. It surprises me that with the depth of lean thinking in Japanese manufacturing, from what I have been able to discern so far, there is limited application of lean leadership in healthcare and other services.
I’ve talked to current and former Toyota leaders who all have suggested that TPS or lean thinking and practice is likely seen as for the production side of businesses, not for offices or services. Japan has a huge opportunity to learn from their healthcare colleagues in the Americas, Australia, and Europe, as well as domestic manufacturing organizations.
- The most successful lean thinking companies in Japan have figured out how to engage the capabilities of their employees. This is true “respect for people.” From one organization that focuses on basic skills to employ disabled people, to a company that professes to have “no rules,” to Toyota (the deepest lean thinking company), the organizations I’ve visited so far all talk about an appreciation for developing people and supporting them to solve problems at all levels. Lean is not something that they do to “be lean”; it’s a deeply held philosophy about supporting their people to deliver their value to customers.
- Change is possible. Not all companies using lean thinking have practiced as long as Toyota. However, as with anywhere, a few dedicated leaders can have a profound impact on setting the direction of a company and building a culture for continuous improvement. This gives me great hope and confidence that with a few committed leaders more organizations in Japan – and around the world, too – can create cultures of continuous improvement and deliver greater value to their customers.
I look forward to another year of intentional learning in Japan about lean, leadership, and life. I have some questions for you too to help shape these experiences:
- What questions do you have for me to ask as I continue to meet people and go to gemba in Japan?
- What advice and observations do you have from your own experiences in Japan to guide me? Where should I “go see”?
- What is your experience of being an “insider” (expert) versus “outsider” (novice) when going to gemba? How has that shaped your ability to see with or without assumptions?