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Beyond Lean

It is easy to read these design rules and think, “We’ve already done that. We have a book of standards, we’ve developed process maps for the flows, we know the customer of every process - so what’s new?” Of course, the initial reaction will usually prevent someone from really engaging and learning. This very common reaction will shift dramatically if significant time is spent at a Toyota plant. What will then become clear is that the level of depth to which you can take these practices is 1,000 times greater than seemed possible with traditional activities above such as process mapping or standards books. For example, a process map may define what request is made between a supplier and customer, but how thoroughly do we actually consider how that connection between the customer and supplier is carried out? Is it defined to great detail? Is it so clear that there can be no misinterpretation of the signal? If there is a problem or failure with the signal, does someone know? A process map will just show a box with the activity. The depth to which Toyota applies these rules-in-use to the connection between team leader and team member in comparison to most other companies is well worth exploring. In your company, what happens when an employee finds a problem or an opportunity? Perhaps you’ve told you’re employees “feel free to come to me with any problems,” but is that really a good application of rule number 2 which states clearly connect every customer / supplier. If it were a good application, that connection should be direct between you and your employee and it should be binary so that a customer request – such as help in solving a problem – comes only one way and means only one thing. You may not see this rigor as important, so we will explore what happens when the answer to that question is even slightly ambiguous.

A new employee comes to you with a problem that he doesn’t know how to solve. You, full of good intentions, tell the employee to try again so that he can learn. He solves the problem, but in the process inadvertently learns that he should exhaust every possible opportunity before coming to you with the problem. One time, the problem is so critical in timing that it could cost the company millions of dollars, but following what he learned, the employee tries everything he can first. By the time he comes to you, it is too late. Both you and the employee had good intentions, but despite these intentions a major problem occurred. Because this problem was such a catastrophe, it creates unwanted attention for that particular employee. As a result, the next time he comes across such a problem, he focuses on sweeping the problem under the rug so that he will not receive all this negative attention. Now, not only does the problem not get attention in a timely manner, but doesn’t receive it at all, all because there is significant ambiguity between the employee and supervisor regarding their problem solving process. It would be a safe bet that every disenfranchised and frustrated employee has a story like this one. It is not enough to have good intentions, you need to drive unbending rules into how your organization will operate or it will always eventually revert to its most closed and self-protecting form. At Toyota, the customer / supplier relationship is very clear to everyone. The connection between the customer and supplier is binary, so the request and related response has no waste or opportunity for failure. This is not because the right tool happened to solve this problem, but because lean systems thinking was applied through rule number 2: clearly connect every customer / supplier. The employee is a customer of the team leader’s supplied problem solving skills, coaching, and support. That is the first part of understanding the rule. Who is the customer and who is the supplier becomes clear and the service or value being supplied is also clear. Most companies that espouse a belief that their supervisors and management support the worker would not have to look far to see the exact opposite of this belief with comments from supervisors such as “you work for me.”

At Toyota, the employee, as soon as she sees a problem and despite whether or not she can solve it, pulls a cord5 that signals the team leader. That signal is sent by music that tells the team leader that there is a problem and through a signal board that tells him where the problem exists. The team leader shows up, not sometime but immediately, and says “what is the problem and how can I help?” This is direct and binary. Identifying a “problem” directly and always drives the action to “pull the andon cord,” and “pull the andon cord” is always followed by the action of “team leader shows up.” This happens around 10,000 times a day in a Toyota plant; and through strong problem solving skills at all levels to support that action, they can solve many more times the problems than any other organization can.

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