Everybody listens to others constantly, yet rarely pays real attention to what we are hearing. This prompted Henry David Thoreau to note, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.“
This basic aspect of human nature shows up in core lean principles. In June 2011 John Shook raised awareness of respect as a concern for the lean community with his e-Letter, How to Go to the Gemba: Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect, The headline is based on the behavior of Toyota’s then-chairman Fujio Cho’s persistent challenge to managers and senior leaders to be mindful of these practices. John terms the three phrases “basic lean principles” and describes how he tries to carry out each one when he goes to a gemba.
Paying real attention to what others are saying resonates with core lean principles.Since 2011 there have been countless articles and books written about the importance of “showing respect” as a key factor in creating and sustaining a lean/continuous improvement work environment. (I am tending to shy away from talking about culture because I’ve learned that there generally too many ingredients in the soup to tackle as a whole. Work environment, on the other hand, seems to be something managers and leaders can influence by their behavior.) With full recognition of the value of John’s e-letter and the efforts that followed describing how to show respect, I am going to focus this piece on the source of the quote, Fujio Cho, and what I observed him doing at gemba.
In the mid-1980s I was hired to work at Toyota’s first solely-owned North American manufacturing plant, Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky. Fujio Cho was president of the plant and I had numerous opportunities to observe him at the gemba and to work with him on the development of his managers and senior leaders during the six years he was at TMMK. I want to describe what I learned from Mr. Cho about listening as a critical (maybe the most critical) way of showing respect.
Listening as the Critical Way of Showing Respect
Most days when Mr. Cho was onsite at the Kentucky plant he would leave his desk around 5 PM and go out somewhere on the floor by himself. I saw him many times in many different parts of the plant standing alone and out of the way, simply observing. I also saw him talking with team members on the line. I could not hear what he was saying but I know from talking to several team members that he was primarily doing two things: Thanking people for their efforts, and asking questions. The questions usually were along the lines of:
- “How is your job?”
- “How are you feeling?”
- “What gets in your way?”
- “What do you see that could be improved?”
It is my impression that in most cases (unless there was a safety concern) he did not answer or follow up on their concerns directly himself. He simply thanked them for sharing what they knew and thought.
I learned another thing about Mr. Cho’s contact with team members in the operation by watching him. He listened to them. He stood politely, nodding as they spoke. I mean he actually listened. I could tell from a distance that he was in contact with each team member as a person and he was focused on them. Maybe it was because hearing and speaking in English was not easy for him. But I don’t think so. What I remember feeling is that he was fully present and connected to the person speaking as though there was no more important use of his time. What I sensed is that he was listening with his full being. If that is what he meant by “show respect,” it sets a high bar for the rest of us to meet.
I also frequently observed Mr. Cho showing respect in a different way in another setting. I sat in many management and executive meetings reviewing plant performance and operational problems where Mr. Cho was fully present and deeply connected to the person speaking–as though there were no more important use of his time.Mr. Cho was present. He listened in those meetings, too, usually for a long time before asking questions. His questions and requests tended to be: “What do you know about it?” “What have you seen?” “What do you think is the problem?” “Why do you think it’s happening?” “What’s your idea?”
These meetings often ended in much the same way. Mr. Cho would describe what he heard, add what he was concerned about from his perspective, and then say, “Please think about…” “Go see and learn more about what is happening. We will talk more then.”
I learned over time that what Mr. Cho was doing wasn’t merely acting casually respectful of these managers and leaders and their ability to see, learn and think. It was his way of developing them as Toyota leaders also. Those simple requests and questions accomplished several things. They made those managers responsible for learning and thinking. They communicated that he believed the managers could learn and think. And they implied that he thought they were worth investing the time and effort in prompting their development.
His approach was confusing to some of the managers who came from the US auto industry. I would hear them leaving such meetings saying things like, “What do you think Mr. Cho wants? And why doesn’t he tells us what he wants?”
One more piece of data from my experience with Mr. Cho and then I will return to what I learned from him about what I call “respectful listening,” or showing respect by listening attentively. Because I was responsible for management and executive education, I had several opportunities to talk with Mr. Cho about how he wanted me to support his efforts at management development. In an earlier program I summarized some of the things he shared in his “A Memo to TMMK Managers” that I used in the session. An excerpt from what he said about Toyota managers’ responsibility to communicate with and listen to their employees follows:
- Daily communication with your subordinates is critical. You have to be in contact with them – both listening to and speaking openly with them – every day. You must give them any important information you have about the job including the reason for changes whenever possible. This is essential so they will not be surprised and feel they are being left out of decisions that affect them.
- For daily communication to be good daily communication, it must first be good communication from the subordinate’s point of view. This is a situation in which your subordinates feel free to come to you with problems and questions. They will feel free to come to you if they trust you will listen to them with empathy, share whatever ideas and information you have, and not take the job away from them and replace it with blame.
- From the manager’s point of view, good communication is timely reporting. You are told about problems while they are still in the early stages and before it is too late to address them. Good communication with subordinates gives the manager enough information about a situation to maintain an adequate grasp of the situation. If you do not genuinely listen and get adequate information about a situation from your subordinates, you will have no idea what information or assistance they need from you.
I can’t remember if “genuinely listen” was the exact phrase Mr. Cho used but I do know he was comfortable with it in his memo. I also know that what I observed him doing was sincerely and intently listening. Based on what I saw and heard from Mr. Cho I offer the following seven suggestions as an approach to listen respectfully:
- Be present in mind as well as body.
- Connect with the person, not just the words.
- Consciously attend to what is being said.
- Try to turn down or ignore the chatter in your head.
- Acknowledge what is said as it is said.
- Speak to what was said (not to the ideas popping into your mind.)
- Recognize the other person’s feeling and concerns.
That’s a tall order but it is humanly possible in spite of our basic nature. I saw it being done.