In the spring of 1984, I was helping Toyota develop a training program to support the first full-scale implementation of its production system outside of Toyota City. As the only American member of the company’s Education & Training Department, one of my challenges was to help create training materials in English to explain myriad aspects — technical and social — of Toyota’s system. One aspect of the company that demanded thorough explanation was its human resource management philosophy and system. Based on what I knew of Toyota HRM at the time, I offered up what is now a familiar line to explain it: “Our people are our most important asset”. It was one sentence — a kind of a slogan — of a small pamphlet and it sounded good to me.
So I was surprised when the general manager of our department called me over to challenge it. My first presumption was that he just didn’t understand the English words. But, as I explained — perfectly satisfactorily I thought — he kept pushing back. For awhile, I persisted, still assuming that he just didn’t understand the English in a bit of an impasse.
As he continued to question me, uncovering some of the hidden assumptions buried in my slogan, I slowly began to grasp what he was trying to get me to see. “Who is the ‘we’ in ‘our people’? Who is the ‘us’ in ‘our asset’?” he asked. “Why, the company, of course,” I responded with some frustration at the fact that he couldn’t see the obvious goodness in the sentence I had written. Yet, gradually, it began to dawn on me that the cause of our impasse might be less a matter of his failure to understand English and more the fault of my immature understanding of the philosophy. He was getting at something deeper than I had first recognized. And that was the real reason I was having such a difficult time communicating in simple English the profound concept he was coaching me to share.
“Does it make any sense to say, “Our people are our most important resource” when we are the people and the company is us?” he pressed. Upon reflection, I realized the deeper truth in what he was getting at. He was right — it doesn’t make sense to say that people are our most important asset. This well-intentioned phrase was in fact carrying a buried and profoundly disrespectful message, implying conventional capital asset thinking, treating the people in the organization as an asset to be computed along with any other number in a ROI calculation. It missed the point. Badly.
I realize now that his concern wasn’t that I get the phrasing exactly right. He was challenging me on a basic level so that I could understand that people aren’t just an asset (leading me to chafe at the currently popular term, “human capital”) — we are the people and the people are the company.
I still don’t know how to state in a succinct and precisely nuanced way the profound concept that he so desperately wanted me to understand. Looking back now with chagrin at this exchange that occurred 25 years ago, I am humbled to tell you that the end to this saga was that I decided to dig in my heels, declare, “This is the way we would communicate that philosophy in English,” and with that I “won” the argument. The materials went out with my wrongly nuanced explanation. To this day, I sometimes see Toyota materials with that statement on it.
I met that general manager at a reunion dinner just a couple of years ago. He didn’t even remember the discussion but I apologized anyway.
See you next week.
Lean Enterprise Institute