Q&A with Jeffrey Liker: How to get your management on board with Lean


Jeff Liker is a 13 times a Shingo Prize winner for Research Excellence. He is known around the world as a leading Lean expert and the independent authority on The Toyota Way. Jeff is also a leader of our best-selling Masterclass, Leading the Toyota Way. Jeff shared his invaluable knowledge on how to develop a true culture of Lean Leadership in his most recent Q&A session with us, which you can also watch here. This is a part one of Jeff’s Q&A session, see how he addressed the questions of executives from some of the top companies in manufacturing on achieving the highest levels of operational excellence.

Q: How do I address the lack of understanding from leadership on the implementation of TPS? 

A: I guess the short answer is it takes time. You need to educate leaders, but education is different than telling them things. So for example, you could try to be a persuasive speaker and go to their office and tell them what you think TPS is and try to get them to understand. You can grab them by the shoulders and shake them. Maybe they'll listen more closely, but that's really not the way people learn. The way people learn is over time through exposure, and direct experience is always better than just being told things. The kinds of communication channels you can use include a benchmarking visit or sometimes having the right model line, which is taking some area of the company and transforming it into a leaner system. Toyota does this routinely when teaching outside companies about lean.  It might be one production line and they create a model and then they bring the leaders to the model and maybe even get them to work on it so they can experience something first hand. So, don't think of it as a one-shot deal, but rather a whole series of experiences that start to penetrate their vision of what a good company is. 

Q: Which is the best method for a leader coming from a culture rooted in power and hierarchy to understand the lean philosophy?

A: The problem is that people tend to learn very quickly when they're young and then it takes a lot more repetition, as you get older. When you play golf, and if you start when you're a child, then even if you quit for some years it's much more easy to pick up where you left off when you're an adult then if you start as an adult. So these leaders who are in a top-down culture have experienced being in that environment for their whole lives and they're not going to change easily and a lot of what happens to people is that when they're under stress they revert to what they're comfortable with, what they already know how to do. For a leader who's grown up in a command and control environment, when they feel in control that’s their comfort zone. When they relinquish control and need to trust other people then it's very scary for them. But they have to experience the benefit of relinquishing control. And, again that takes time and also requires that the people they delegate to are able to get results. For example, one company I've worked with had a plant in South America and they sent in a plant manager who had some background in TPS. His natural tendency was to build teams and inspire people and delegate control and his plant started seeing remarkable improvement on KPIs. It was always the best of any of their plants in the world and they wanted to know how that happened. They spent some time down there and then they became very excited. They wanted other plants to learn from this plant and that started to change the company and change the culture. That's just an example, but you need some sort of significant emotional event to convince someone that there's a need to change and that was one example, being able to see and feel this different environment and seeing the numbers that they're the best in the company. Think about what kind of significant emotional event would begin to turn around your leaders to the point where they're open to wanting to learn and believe that empowering people, engaging people is a good thing. You at least have a starting point.

Q: How to address the lack of levels of accountability associated with the use of Lean?

Accountability means two different things in a Lean environment, in an environment that empowers people versus a command and control environment. In a command and control environment, it's more likely they tell you what they expect, and you get these results or else there are consequences. If you get their results, there are positive consequences, or else you are in trouble.  The key lever for accountability is rewards and punishments. This leads to an environment where people operate out of fear and they will make the numbers if they have to. I worked with one master lean sensei who used carrots and sticks and got results in this way.  His boss was concerned and said to me, “he gets good results, but he leaves a lot of dead bodies in his wake.” People would only do what he directly asked them to do and they wouldn't think for themselves. 

In a Lean environment, what you really want is people thinking for themselves. So accountability in that environment is feeling responsible, as they do in Japan. There's a lot of feeling of responsibility out of a sense of obligation. I said I was going to do something by a specific date and if I fail, I feel terrible, so the Japanese will do anything to meet their obligation.  Inside Toyota, the culture is that I need to get these results, but I do it through respect for people and developing people. They rely on values and internal motivation, which is more powerful and sustainable and then people will do the right thing, even when management is not watching.

The other thing is that even though Toyota depends upon intrinsic motivation, they also realize people are people and that you're going to feel pressured to respond to the fire of the moment. One of the reasons Toyota is so obsessed with visual management is to give immediate feedback when things are not going as planned. If it’s green it’s ok if it's red it's not okay and they've created a system where management is on the floor with the people and they're checking then meeting with the leader in front of these visual management boards and asking why is this red? Do you have a plan? Can I help you? Can I coach you? In Toyota, problems can't hide because it's very clear to everybody when there's a problem. 

Q: When starting Lean journey leaders want to know how much time will it take to become Lean? What would you reply to this question? 

Well, if I was being honest, I would say forever. Toyota still doesn't think they've arrived and become Lean after over 70 years of TPS. They think it's a journey. The ideal is continuous Improvement. The state of lean is a process, not a destination. I heard an interesting story. One of the most senior experts on TPS, a student of Taiichi Ohno, was brought into a German company that had spent over a decade on lean,  The CEO was proud of what they had accomplished, but wanted external validation that they were world-class.  He asked the TPS expert to spend a day visiting several plants and then he was to report to the CEO and answer the question: are we world-class in Lean? It was almost like a yes/no answer. If the sensei said yes, then he could go away and collect a huge consulting fee. If he said no then maybe the CEO would ask him why The sensei answered:  “I don't know. I only visited these plants yesterday. I didn't visit them the day before.”

In other words, if they're continuously improving he should be able to see improvement from one day to the next and that would be the kind of acid test of Leanness and if they're not improving then they're not world-class. So if your high-level executives are asking you how long is this going to take: How much money is it going to cost? When will we arrive? When will we pay back the investment?  Obviously, they aren't committed and they don't really understand what Lean is so then you're not in the realm of science, but you're in the realm of politics and you have to decide whether to tell this person the truth. Or maybe you have to tell him a white lie such as: we should see this amount of progress within two years. And then we'll be well on our way to being Lean and you might make a commitment on some KPIs which is very reasonable.  Now in the meantime, the CEOs might not learn much because the CEO thinks this is a program with a clear end and you're not trying to talk him out of it. You're just trying to buy time, hoping that in two years the CEO will now be more open-minded to hear this is a longer-term journey.

Q: How does the leader have to behave differently in a culture of engaged people? 

You know this already, but Japan is a very hierarchical society naturally, so there's a lot of respect for the hierarchy. Maybe there's some fear too. People tend to listen carefully to anybody above them, which is basically anybody older than they are so there's a difference between having a hierarchy versus not having a hierarchy and what the people in the hierarchy do. In Japan, there is a very strong tradition of craftsmanship and Toyota still is very much based on the master-apprentice model, where your boss is your master and you're the apprentice meaning you want to learn from him because he has wisdom, superior skills. So that's the culture Toyota works to build. A culture where you want to learn from your boss because you believe your boss has superior skills and wisdom and has been through this before. That's really the key characteristic of a Lean leader is that they've been through it before, they have the skill, they've mastered something so they have real skill and real knowledge or understanding. Then you naturally are going to go to the Gemba because that's what you know, and when you go to the Gemba, you'll be able to very quickly understand what's going on compared to what should be going on. The gaps will be very clear to you and your job is to figure out how to teach the people to close those gaps. It's very difficult to train managers to understand what they're seeing and to be able to provide useful feedback for developing people when they don’t know what to look for.

Q: It takes a considerable amount of time to put in place the visual management structure and change behaviours of leaders as you said, but are there any hints to accelerating behaviour changes that lead to the desired cultural change? 

I've been working with one of my former students Mike Rother for about the last seven or eight years on something he invented called Toyota Kata. You might have heard of it. He has a book called The Toyota Kata Practice Guide, which goes into great detail about how to apply it. The problem Mike was dealing with was exactly this problem: How can we accelerate leaders developing themselves?  The starting point for Mike Rother was observing the Toyota master trainers and how they develop people and like I mentioned that model line where they take a process and they lead the development of the process into a lean system, but their way of leading is not to tell you anything, but rather to challenge you, push you, give you a very clear challenge to achieve something and then they will give you hints and clues. They'll let you know when you're on the right track or the wrong track, but you have to figure it out. And you have daily coaching. The problem is very few companies have lean Masters in them or if they do there's a very small number. So what Mike was asking himself was: how can we develop that level of skill and understanding without having these Japanese master trainers. He came up with the idea of Kata. It comes from martial arts. In Karate, for example, there are hundreds of Kata which are routines that you practice in order to develop a skill and you might learn how to kick in a certain way or have a certain stance and you work on each of those skills one-by-one repetitively with a master trainer watching you and giving you a corrective feedback. He also turned to cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and realized that people can learn intellectually and understand something academically and it's different from learning with your body and learning by doing.

So you need to do something not just once, but repetitively until it becomes a habit. What you're really trying to do with creating a new kind of leadership is you're trying to build positive habits in your brain that get reinforced enough that they become a new way of thinking. The bad news is that no leader learns how to change their leadership style or behaviour by just listening and intellectually agreeing. If my tendency is to control people, yell at people, tell them what to do, that's my habit and I've had a lot of experience with that, and it will be my default. So you might have convinced me intellectually that it's better to listen to people, challenge people, ask questions, be patient and let them fail. I think it's a wonderful idea. I still can't get myself to do it just by thinking to myself that's what I want to do. What Kata does is gives you a model for focusing on a core skill of a Lean leader, which is scientific thinking and you spend approximately 20 minutes a day practising plan-do-check-act with a storyboard and a very clear model. The model is very simple.  1.Where I want to be in the future (the challenge).  2, where am I now (current condition), 3.  what is my next short-term target condition to get there? And 4.  Go nuts experimenting to work your way to the challenge target condition by target condition. You keep doing that over and over again with a coach and within a few months, you'll start to develop a new habit. It won't be finished but it'll be started at least so now it's a few months and not a few years, but it requires a lot of discipline and commitment to do something every day and to develop the internal coaches that are required. But that's the best thing I know of to actually accelerate the process and it's still not accelerated as compared to say immersing somebody in a one-week training class and expecting that they've changed. All you really can do in a week is get people to agree intellectually that they would like to change. But they don't have the practice and feedback to actually change themselves within a short period of time like that. 

For more information on how you can become a great Lean leader, attend Jeff’s, Leading the Toyota Way Masterclass.

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