Recently I am cornered frequently by beleaguered lean change agents eager to show me their scars inflicted by re-energized resistors. Lean naysayers have seized the Toyota crisis to resist change, admonishing: “You’ve been telling us to ‘be like Toyota.’ Look at them now!”
Don’t lose heart.
Let’s remember why we have sought to learn from Toyota in the first place. We don’t study and seek to adapt Toyota’s ways because the company was perfect. Toyota was never a muda-free zone. In fact, I’ve never thought that the leaders who built Toyota were touched by greater genius than many other famous or influential leaders. We looked to Toyota because, for reasons of largely historical happenstance, Toyota came to embody many of the ideals we desire in human organizations. Whether one’s source of inspiration is Henry Ford, W. Edwards Deming, Alfred Sloan, the Training Within Industry program, Six Sigma, Frederick Taylor, Frank & Lilian Gilbreth, Elton Mayo, Mary Parker Follett, Henri Fayol, Max Weber, Peter Drucker, Shigeo Shingo, John Dewey, Douglas McGregor, Eli Goldratt, Michael Hammer, Peter Senge, Jim Collins, Tom Peters, Russell Ackoff, Edgar Schein, or Henry Mintzberg (whew! Did that cover everybody?), the ideas and ideals represented by those individuals and initiatives found their best actualization at Toyota. At least for a period of time. Will that period of time last forever? Is it already over? While it’s too early to answer these questions, it’s more important to recognize the extent to which Toyota has served as the best large-scale business organizational laboratory we’ve yet seen.
Culture of Control?
Even so, we must recognize that even at its peak as an organizational GPS, Toyota was never as good as its reputation in some ways, but better in others. Both at once. There are still critical pieces of the way the company worked and works that haven’t been fully explained, and that I think may still provide answers to our most vexing problems of human organization.
One particular issue concerns the tension between respecting individuals while simultaneously being extremely tough on them. Critics charge that Toyota workers must sacrifice individuality for the good of the group, following rigid rules that dictate nearly every facet of their working lives. A recent article delving into this issue, “‘Toyota Man’s’ conformist ways come under fire” (John M. Glionna, March 22, 2010), included the statement that, “The real ‘Toyota Way’ is a culture of control,” says Masaki Saruta, a business professor at Japan’s Chukyo University. The article goes on to say, “… guidelines dictate nearly every facet of employees’ day — how they turn corners while walking on company property, where they eat their lunch and even how they conduct themselves at home. At the Toyota plant here, workers cannot put their hands in their pockets. Hall monitors report scofflaws. Commuters who drive to work must report their routes to bosses. Those taking trips on days off must file such details as where they stopped for breaks…”
People who read this article ask me “Is that horrific description actually true?”
There are indeed aspects of that article that are – or WERE – true. That was also part of the Toyota Way. Toyota was never perfect, rather merely “relentlessly seeking perfection” as the phrase goes. Some of the things described in that damning article are (or WERE, anyway) true, but for the most part they also represent dimensions of Toyota during its formative period that some company leaders wanted to change. Turns out, it is not – news flash – so easy to change. Many Toyota leaders have – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – long desired to rid the company of precisely those less attractive dimensions described in the article.
No Hands in Pockets
None of this is new news. Toyota has always had its share of critics in Japan.
A communist sympathizing journalist joined Toyota as an assembly line worker in the early 70s and wrote up his experience in a scathing attack in a book called in English “Japan in the Passing Lane.” The original Japanese title was something like “Hell Factory Toyota.” The book was clearly a one-sided account, dissected expertly in a critical introduction written for the English edition by R. P. Dore.
In response to the question, “Is there really a ‘hall monitor’ to enforce ‘no hands in pockets’ rules?” Well, I don’t know about “hall monitors.” But hands-in-pockets was absolutely a no-no at Toyota in the old days. Hall monitors not needed, your friendly boss would do just fine. There was a logic to explain it.
- Safety. You don’t want people falling on their faces with their hands in their pockets.
- Respect. This one has several sides to it.
- Japanese custom.
- Hands free exhibits a posture of “ready to help,” especially in the factory.
- And it exhibits a decidedly disrespectful posture relative to those working on an assembly line who have no opportunity to leisure about with their hands in their pockets.
This is one of the many cultural artifacts that made its way haltingly across the Pacific. I recall witnessing more than one occasion of Japanese managers slapping the hands of American employees as they began sliding into their pockets. Not just in the factory either. I still recall the shocked expression of a 30-something office manager as my own boss smacked his hands with an audible thwap.
If Toyota – the old Toyota, anyway – were a person, he would be a pretty tough guy. An old-fashioned disciplinarian. The stern football coach who gets in his players’ faces ala Vince Lombardi of the old Green Bay Packers. If not throwing things like basketball’s Bobby Knight, no calm Duke Coach K either. NBA coach Pat Riley tells players, “I need your voluntary cooperation to push you further than you will want to go…” Toyota would be the military drill instructor who might push you to the breaking point but who would also give his life for you in battle. Tough love, as they say. Maybe not for everyone, but definitely part of the Toyota Way.
Respect isn’t necessarily about making individuals feel good in an abstract way. As Jim Womack said in his e-letter of December 2007, “Respect for People,” “The manager challenges the employees every step of the way, asking for more thought, more facts, and more discussion, when the employees just want to implement their favored solution. Over time I’ve come to realize that this problem solving process is actually the highest form of respect.”
So, a degree of “toughness” may be called for at times, especially in the dirty business of manufacturing something like a car. The process of several thousand people working together to assemble tens of thousands of parts that converge once per minute to comprise an automobile is tough work, demanding legitimate discipline. Still, there were instances at the old Toyota when many observers would understandably cry foul. And I imagine vestiges of that Toyota can still be found lurking around, especially at the end of a bad day. But these are also dimensions of the company that decades ago some leaders recognized as needing change. Chairman Fujio Cho and others have sought a Toyota that represents the best of both worlds. The best of “both” worlds on numerous dimensions: old and new, east and west, north and south, tradition and change, stern yet fair. Always improving, changing, built on utilizing and embodying the best we can hope for as humans working together for human purposes. That’s the goal: then there’s that plan versus actual thing.
Lean Enterprise Institute