If I were to distill down my 31 years to a single word, it would be serendiptity. When I look back, I’ve come to realize that in the pursuits of my life, I’ve very rarely been fulfilled by that which I’ve sought; it is the act of seeking, however, that has rewarded me in ways that are both completely unexpected and absolutely invaluable.
The piece that you are about to read is my epitome of serendipity. On one level, the original intention of the post, I sought advice from who I believe to be the top Lean thinkers alive to share here in my little corner of the internet with you all. Certainly, the responses that I received – actually, that I received any responses at all – more than exceeded even my most wishful expectations. However, in true serendipitous fashion, in seeking and receiving wisdom from these three individuals, I was taught for more than I would have ever imagined.
To maintain integrity to the original intention of the piece, and out of the respect to the contributing authors, I have divided the piece into two parts. In the first, Mr. Jones, Mr. Elson and Ms. Richardson provide us with their words of wisdom for the Lean journey. In the second part, I will take you behind the scenes to look at how the piece came to be, and how its lessons both reinforce and transcend the concept of Lean thinking.
Knowledge Comes Only from Experience
Indeed, we are all on a journey of learning, and there is no greater teacher than experience. As I freely admit, I am no expert in Lean thinking or TPS (the Toyota Production System). The chief reason is, and likely will be for a very very long time, is that there is much that I have yet to experience. There is no substitute to learning by doing; however, as the next best alternative, I’ve been diligent in my efforts to learn from others who have been there and done that.
In doing so, I have developed a question which I have found to be very effective for the purpose of extracting knowledge from others. I don’t know why it works, but it consistently seems to spark up thoughtful and enlightening conversations. A few months ago, I worked up the chutzpah to reach out to several prominent individuals in the Lean community for their thoughts on my go-to question. From a few, I have had the great fortune to study directly, while from most I have learned more than they will ever realize through their books and articles.
To my great surprise and elation, three generous individuals took time out of their busy schedules to deliver very thoughtful and poignant responses to the following prompt:
Reflecting on your own experiences, what is the one piece of advice that you wished you would have received at the start of your Lean journey?”
As you will hear more about in Part 2 of this piece, it is not an exaggeration for me to say that this certainly stands out as the highlight of my blogging career to date. I consider it a great honor to share their words of wisdom with you here at TheKaiZone.
Daniel T. Jones
About: Daniel T. Jones
“Let me give you two brief reactions to your question. First, in the early days we had no one else to point to but Toyota and we still had to work out how lean applied to every other industry, who all said they were not making cars! In those days the best advice was to find willing pioneers who were sufficiently intrigued by the idea of lean to let us conduct proof of concept experiments that delivered superior results – the rest followed. The biggest reward is seeing these early seeds grow and to hear front line staff tell me lean changed their lives and they never wanted to go back to the old days!
Now there are plenty of examples and we know how it works in every kind of activity and industry the advice is different. Go see what other pioneers have done, recognise this is about genuinely engaging everyone from the front line in problem solving and learn how to work with your colleagues to align your objectives around the vital few actions that will deliver the biggest business benefits to the organisation and grow value for your customers. Find a Sensei, go learn with your colleagues and reflect on what worked and what did not and why – you will find the right path for your situation.”
About: Matt Elson
“Being humble. Sounds easy, but being humble and practicing hensei (reflection) is very difficult at times. When I left Toyota Canada, I thought that I knew what TPS was about. After all, I used kanbans everyday, I knew what takt time meant, and I did work at Toyota for over 6 years. It was only at Magna International that I was taught my first real lessons in what TPS is and what it isn’t. One of my first mentors, Satoko, brought me down a few notches with, “You talk a lot, but don’t get much done.” Ouch! Then, Mr. Ohba, “You have maybe 20% mechanical understanding of TPS . . . it should be 80% implicit knowledge to be effective.” Ouch again!
The messages were hard to hear, and even more difficult to internalize. After all, I was already fairly successful in my career, so why was I so far off the mark? I think one of the many things that Satoko and Mr. Ohba were trying to teach me is that you don’t have to prove your smarts or success by spouting off on how much you know and what you have done. Being effective is NOT knowing all the answers all the time. It’s about knowing that people (and processes!) can teach you things. They know what the problems are and how to make it better. Get over yourself, be quiet and observe. TPS is about human development, and that starts with you!”
About: Tracey Richardson
“Answering your question is a little difficult because back in 1988 when I started at TMMK [Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky] there wasn’t a “persay” lean journey. It was just our job. I suppose I learned things much differently than most people did. I learned from the “cats mouth” and it was never labeled anything but our J-O-B. At that particular point, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so to speak. The ones of us who were blessed to be hired at the beginning were embarking in unknown territory from traditional thinking. I was only 19 at the time, so I didn’t have too much traditional conditioning to undo.
What we perceived as everyday work life (TPS – Toyota Way) is now called “Lean” and different names, so it’s as if there is a journey to get there when in fact it’s just daily actions we choose to have discipline and accountability around. Resistance to change and people development not being the focus is what creates the long journey. As I’ve said in class many times, people will always trump the tools. If they don’t understand why they are doing “lean” or the “tools”, then it’s as good as the flavor-of-the-month mentality.
It’s funny that I didn’t realize all of this until after I left Toyota and began teaching. I really wasn’t aware that everyone didn’t do business like I was used to. I guess as I reflect back, I didn’t realize it was so unique until I saw other business models. Then I knew, lean is very simple, it’s just not easy to do. It’s like basic math. When you put process before results then you are “lean”, meaning people and processes come first. If you push results and numbers, then your culture is dying a slow death. As my trainer once said, “Good processes will always give you the results you are looking for.” So, results are the outcome of good processes, and nothing you have to force.
So, I know I didn’t answer your question, because I really cant. I wasn’t on a lean journey when I learned. It was already paved by my trainers, we just had to stay on-track (DNA – Discipline and Accountability) for being a leader who developed people and processes to support our internal and external customers.
I guess the one thing I can say that I learned when I left. Never assume everyone does business the same way.”
My Two Cents
The real power in seeing these diverse and candid perspectives brought together is being able to pick out the themes that are truly universal. Consider the following quotes:
What’s the Lean journey all about? As I’ve been taught one thousand times over, it’s about developing people. The lesson, however, is not seeing the principle in words. It’s about seeing it in action. As Mr. Jones, Mr. Elson and Ms. Richardson demonstrated for myself and for TheKaiZone Community, anyone can talk the talk. The truly great ones are willing to walk the walk.
And for this, I thank them.
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