How to Learn our Way to our Goal

Jeff Liker is considered one of the leading experts on how work gets done at Toyota.  

Over the years, thousands of companies have attempted to implement Toyota’s ideas around lean manufacturing which is at the heart of the fabled “Toyota Way,” writes Robert E. Quinn in his book The Deep Change Field Guide.  Implementing lean involves eliminating waste through a process of continuous improvement.

Yet, according to Jeff, only two percent of the companies that have implemented lean have achieved the desired results.

Why?

Because western companies approach problems and opportunities with what Robert calls a “checklist mentality.”  An expert arrives at the “correct” way to do something and then puts together a plan, trains the necessary people, and audits the change process.  

“The great thing about this approach is that it is fast and efficient,” Robert writes.  “The bad thing is it seldom works.”  

Our “go to” response is to say: “Give me the specifics.  What do I need to do and when?”

Real change is not about checklists, writes Robert.  Instead we are wise to seek a unique strategy for our specific circumstances:  “This is about figuring out where you are, where you need to go and then launching an effort to get there. There are no recipes.”

Robert writes: “Few people want to hear that last sentence.  It suggests that we need to do the kind of work that no one wants to do: the work of deep change.”

One of Jeff’s favorite stories involves a manufacturing company hiring a consultant to improve its processes.  

After touring the site, the consultant said, “You have three shifts and a total of 140 employees.  I suggest we reduce it to two shifts with a total of ten people while maintaining the current level of productivity.”

The managers were incredulous.  “How?” they asked.

The consultant replied, “I do not know how.”

A “normal” consultant, Robert states, would give an answer even if he or she had to make it up: “Consultants have a profound need to look like experts, a trait they share with the rest of us.  We are afraid of what will happen if others find out we do not know all the answers.”

The consultant told the managers: “We will have to learn our way to our goal.  I would like you to concentrate your efforts on eliminating the inventory backlog.  In a few weeks I will come back and see what you have learned.”

The people in the firm worked diligently to eliminate the backlog.  They tried experiments.  They evaluated the results, made adjustments, and tried again.  They listened to each other.  They learned. 

When the consultant returned, the team was excited to share their innovations.  The consultant then focused them on another part of the production process.  This pattern continued for two years.

At the end of two years, the firm had two shifts and had reduced the workforce from 140 to 15.

The deep change process begins with a desired outcome and some general principles around collective learning, adaptation and experimentation.  

Not a recipe.  Not a road map.

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Reflection:  What assumptions am I or my team making about “the way things are?”

Action:  Discuss, outline, and challenge these assumptions.

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