Think like Toyota: Who is your CEO's boss?

Distilling the Essence of Japanese Management

It’s been seven years since I became involved with the global executive training for Toyota Motor Corporation. This year, I had the opportunity to take part in the Japan Session of Toyota’s Leadership Development Program. Here are some of my thoughts from this weeklong experience.

At first glance, Toyota’s human resource development program may appear to be a highly sophisticated knowledge-creating process, however, in actuality it is a monument of sweat and hard work. Toyota considers all employees to be part of one big family. Supervisors and team members (employees) continuously repeat the work pattern known as TBP (Toyota Business Practice), putting their efforts into on-site practice. Based on this, a feeling of affection and gratitude—similar to that of a teacher-disciple relationship in Japanese traditional arts—is nurtured between supervisors and team members, and this leads to a life-long relationship to teach and to be taught.

Ideally, supervisors do not teach all of their knowledge to their team members at once, but rather what is deemed necessary at the time and in the required amount. In fact, Toyota supervisors continue to do so, despite the fact that it has been made more difficult by globalization and changes in society. From a Western perspective, this method of teaching may appear to lack completeness and consistency, but the true intention lies in inculcating independence in team members so they can think on their own, and leaving enough space so they can acquire knowledge by themselves. Thus, for supervisors to practice this teaching method, not only are they required to be aware of the skills of their team members, but also to have an understanding of their mentality.

It could be said that this is an excellent test for supervisors at Toyota. Toyota requires employees to think not only from the viewpoint of their supervisor, but from the viewpoint of their supervisor’s boss. For instance, a team leader would think about the tasks of the group leader as one’s immediate supervisor, and further attempt to understand the duties that need to be performed by the general manager.

So what does this accomplish? For one, this obviously raises the consciousness of employees. The scope of duties of a supervisor two levels above is broad and their responsibility is heavy. This enables employees to objectively view the work of their own team. Secondly, coordination and cooperation between teams can be facilitated.

Let's assume that there are two groups in one business department and each group is divided into three teams. It is often the case that these six teams are not on the same page. Nevertheless, by viewing things from the perspective of the general manager, it becomes easier to understand the actions that need to be taken in order for all six teams to work together and to realize the policy of the business department as a whole.

I asked the following questions to Toyota’s global executives: "Who is your supervisor? Who is your supervisor’s boss?" I doggedly repeated this question until I reached the following question: Who is the supervisor of Toyota Motor Corporation’s president? The immediate answer I received from the executives was “customers.” My next question was, “Then who is the supervisor of our customers?” The responses included: “something great,” “earth,” and “society,” among others. Amazingly, things came full circle as they talked about human potential and expressed connections between heaven and earth. After participating in the Japan Session and spending a week with Toyota global executives, my conviction was that Toyota’s human resource development program can be employed anywhere.

During this Japan Session, we visited the birthplace of Toyota Industries Founder, Sakichi Toyoda, the “King of Japanese Inventors.” We viewed displays showing the era when Kiichiro Toyoda (Sakichi's son) launched the automobile business, and discussed the TV drama Leaders, which chronicled this period, together with executives from Asia Pacific, Europe, North America and South America. The executives were initially calm and logical in talking about the circumstances surrounding Toyota and TBP, but when we entered the discussion on Leaders, a male executive from Australia confessed that he cried while watching the TV drama, and a female executive from Southeast Asia said that she couldn’t stop crying for five hours. I picked out several scenes from the TV drama and asked the executives to express what it meant to them. After a period of silence, they took a deep breath and started talking about what they felt, carefully choosing every word. I believe we were able to touch on Toyota’s roots and collectively internalize those feelings, similar to the discussions of the source in Theory U.*

If I were to elaborate this experience using Sakichi Toyoda’s famed G-type automatic loom as an allegory, I envisioned the executives weaving the story of Toyota’s future using TBP and the Toyota Way as the warp and woof. So how can Toyota’s human resource development be associated with Ki and management? When you shift your viewpoint to the position of your supervisor’s boss, place yourself at the front line of production and products, and go back and forth between subjectivity and objectivity through the TBP process, your brain becomes like a Mandala, a schematized representation of the universe. In other words, a network develops in your brain containing precise data of production management, customer feedback, negotiations with suppliers, and the joys and pains of your team members. But since human beings are made of body, spirit and soul, it could be said that processing this kind of mixed information of multiple hierarchies is a very human environment for fostering human resources. It could also be said those opportunities for finding inspiration and replenishing energy for daily improvement and the standardization of business activities are realized as a result of coming into touch with all of these aspects. (Refer here for more on Mandala.)

Seeing the employees as part of one big family, laboriously training them, believing in their independence, and expecting a holistic human capacity development from them—all these elements tells us why Toyota is the representative company of Japanese management. I believe if we can figure out the essence of why Toyota is succeeding in global executive development, this would largely benefit other Japanese companies.

In essence, Toyota is successful in developing global executives because, by conducting TBP through their daily work, the corporate philosophy of the Toyota Way has penetrated the organization in both words and reality. And as employees internalize the corporate philosophy, this has formed and fostered Toyota’s own unique culture as an organization. Because of these reasons, when Toyota global executives meet, they can have an efficient meeting on the true nature of the topic no matter if they come from different regions or from different departments.

Connect business processes with corporate philosophy
• Allow employees to internalize the importance of connecting business processes and corporate philosophy
• Elevate this understanding to a level that it becomes an organizational culture

If Japanese companies can follow the above and execute, I have a firm conviction that Japanese management can be employed globally.

*Theory U is an innovative notion introduced to the management world by Dr. C Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Photo by madburst