I spent fifteen years working with Toyota in North American and Japan, and discovered first-hand one of the most powerful aspects of the company’s core strength: the shared assumption that I and every other employee was personally responsible for problem-solving with the scope of my job as part of my job. I now realize that this expectation was the basis of “the personal problem solving responsibility” culture in the company.
One example of this culture is the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. The plant website reports that employees here submit an average of over 90,000 suggestions per year. That is an impressive number for a site with around 7,000 employees, 6,500 of whom are eligible to submit in the program (first-line supervisors and above are generally not.) But the really impressive thing is that over 95% of those suggestions are not just ideas for improvements. They are changes and countermeasures that have been implemented and confirmed as effective before they were submitted. And the vast majority of those 90,000 improvements addressed small problems that got in the way or caused waste in the employees’ daily work or work areas.
How does a company manage to produce such dramatic results? These numbers indicate a shared set of assumptions and values that looks for ways to improve existing practices. How can you, how can any company, create a problem solving organizational culture?
Let’s assume that you cannot command or delegate the shared responsibility to think that is apparent in the Kentucky Toyota plant (and others around the world.) This goes beyond the requirements of a job description. It must be created through the discretionary effort of every individual. This cannot be achieved, to use lean terminology, through “push” but through “pull.” The work environment needs to be one in which employees feel a “pull” to contribute to the common good and decide to respond to problems they see rather than “work-around” them.
I can suggest one route to achieve this, based on reflecting on my experience with Toyota. I worked and dealt with hundreds of Japanese managers, supervisors, co-ordinators and leaders while I was in Toyota and one thing that stands out to me is the consistency of their requests and questions to me:
“David-san, please think about…”
“What exactly is the problem you are trying to solve?”
“What is actually happening?”
“How do you know that?”
“Why is it happening?”
“Why do you think that?”
The impact of these questions was both uncomfortable and profound. They made me stop and think. They made me think about what I was thinking and why I was thinking it. I had to step back from my observations, ideas and opinions and look at what they were based on. And the message behind the questions was powerful and personal: my job was to contribute as needed from the context of my role in the company. And it was my responsibility to think about how to do that, including figuring out how to deal with problems that came up as I tried to deliver. I knew that the problems that turned up as I tried to do my work were mine to solve or it was my responsibility to take initiative and seek help if they were beyond my scope.
Compare that sense of role and responsibility to the “work-around,” “not-my-job,” “nothing-I-can-do” attitudes that seem to dominate most companies. Do you wonder why those attitudes are so different from the expectation that all employees can and should be problem solvers?
Do you recognize some of the following underlying assumptions in the culture of your company, or the companies that you deal with? The belief that management makes the decisions. That managers should know the answers. That managers, engineers, and other specialists are the problem solvers; and that most employees don’t know enough or care enough to solve problems. That supervisors should break things down and delegate tasks not responsibilities. And finally, the most stifling of all: “Failure is not an option.”
The questions that result from these workplaces couldn’t contrast more with what I experienced. They run along the lines of: Who screwed this up? What the heck were you thinking? Don’t bring me a problem without a solution. If that’s your plan, then it had better work. Don’t give me details, just tell me when it’s fixed.
So, if you are a manager in a company that aspires to have a problem solving culture, what can you do? Here are two thoughts to consider:
First, bringing about the kind of culture change that is needed may not be a job for top-down, blanket solutions: this approach is in fact part of the thinking that put us where we are. To quote John Shook, “It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than think you way to a new way of acting.”
Second, there are a couple of new ways of acting that can go a long way toward creating a problem solving culture in a company. First, when dealing with employees who you want to help develop a problem solving mindset, you must restrain the impulse to show what you know. You need to ask questions that you don’t think you already have the answers to. You can let your natural curiosity lead and try to learn what the employee knows.
In addition, you can take on the role as a manager or leader to create a safe zone where failure is allowed to happen and employees can experiment with improvements and countermeasures, and learn from the outcomes. That’s ultimately how we solve problems, and how we learn from problem solving.
These different ways of leading as a manager point toward a way of enacting culture change that could be called “Lead from the Middle.” Just think of the impact on business and operational performance if we could take the thinking and the effort that goes into workarounds and re-channel it into actually addressing and eliminating the problems employees encounter (and create!) as they are trying to do their jobs.