Six Toyota lean practices
for leading
with respect

FEATURE – The authors share the main insights from a webinar with two Toyota leaders from South America, on the leadership practices that have allowed the company to sustain results for decades.

Words: Robson Gouveia and Tamiris Masetto Manzano, Lean Institute Brasil.

No company is more inspirational in the lean world – and beyond – than Toyota. Its way of working, its productivity and results and the quality of its products have captured our imagination and represent a North Star for organizations around the world. It is now recognized that the company’s success stems from its unique organizational culture and an approach to leadership based on humility and respect for people.

This article compiles some of the Toyota practices and tips for a truly supportive, humble, and respectful leadership, as outlined by Bruno Kosima, Head of Department at Toyota Latin America & Caribbean, and Ademir Canal, Production Director at Toyota do Brasil, during a webinar hosted by Lean Institute Brasil a few weeks ago.

1. Be a servant leader

“When you are out observing on the gemba, do something to help the workers,” Taiichi Ohno once said.

In Jeffrey Liker and Michael Hoseus’s Toyota Culture, there is an entire chapter dedicated to explaining servant leadership, inspired by this Ohno quote. One of Toyota’s premises is that the leader must be with the team at the gemba. That doesn’t mean just being there physically to observe what is being done but contributing to the process and making improvements (kaizens) with employees.

To this end, leaders follow the essence and philosophy of the Toyota Way, which is based on two pillars: 1) continuous improvement (humbly adjusting the course and striving to do better, preferably every day) and 2) respect for people (working as a team and respecting each individual in their uniqueness and diversity). By following this philosophy, Toyota leaders around the world embrace these principles and behaviors, as if in unison.

Practice is fundamental to achieve servant leadership. The repetition of good practices brings excellence. Being just, humble, being willing to learn, and challenging yourself are just a few examples of practices that must be carried out every day to lead with respect and towards continuous improvement.

2. Practice genchi genbutsu and kaizen every day

Genchi genbutsu means going to the real place where things happen (the gemba) and seeing the work with your own eyes. This practice allows the leader to see for themself everything that is happening, to find better ways to do things with the team, to inspire and motivate people, and to understand the situation with facts and data. In addition, asking questions, which is a genchi genbutsu practice, forces people to analyze the facts and, in doing that, develops their skills.

Contrary to what many people think, workshops are not necessary to perform kaizen; it must be practiced every day at the gemba. Take some time every day to go to the gemba. There is no “correct” time to do so; you may decide which time best fits your schedule, so long as you take some time to do so.

3. Respect people, always

At Toyota, respect for people starts with giving autonomy to all employees, including (in fact, especially) front-line operators. People are encouraged to become the owners of the processes in which they work. Another form of respect is the green light everyone receives at Toyota to make suggestions for different types of improvements (process, execution, ergonomics, quality, management, and so on).

This practice promotes mutual respect between leaders and front-like staff. It also eliminates the “fear” of talking about problems and being punished, thus strengthening the organization’s ability to improve.

4. Engage everyone in the cultural transformation of continuous improvement

Toyota’s culture encourages people to expose and solve problems, and this means that everyone is held accountable. If cultural change in an organization is to happen, everyone must do their part and be engaged. Changes come neither from the top to the bottom nor from the bottom to the top – at least not at Toyota. The culture is built collectively and depends on the initiative of every single individual.

Change is often hard. People resist it as they tend to think everything is always fine and there is nothing to be improved. That’s largely because, as humans, we are naturally scared of change. Toyota is different in this regard: improvement is always its focus (even when there is no crisis to face or challenge to overcome). In fact, Toyota believes that if there is no gap, you should create one. When everything is calm, change must be artificially created.

5. Make sure everyone is aligned with the organization’s core values

When Toyota became a global company, their president at the time, Mr. Cho, was concerned about retaining its essence, values, and fundamentals (for example, standardized work, just in time, jidoka, customer first, etc.) in all their branches around the world. Thus, the Toyota Way was created as a means of documenting good practices and the essence of the company. That way, all units, regardless of where in the world they were, could keep to Toyota’s core values and behaviors.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that the practices must be exactly the same. Their essence and origins are the same, but even the fundamentals must be rethought and improved over time and adapted to the context and needs of each unit and the country in which they are located.

6. Connect with people and develop their continuous improvement skills

The role of a leader at Toyota, as we have already discussed, is not merely that of an observer of the company’s activities and performance. Leaders carry the great responsibility of working with the team in continuous improvement and, even more important, of developing employees in this critical practice and mindset.

This means that everyone at Toyota receives training when they join the company, but also that people development continues throughout their life at the company. This is always guided by continuous improvement, prompting the right questions and instigating problem solving whenever problems arise.

To achieve this, it is necessary to connect with people, be an example to them and have a positive influence. To connect with staff, you must be clear and transparent with them. For example, when the leader goes to the gemba to observe the work, it is important that the employees unequivocally understand that what is being observed is the work, not them, so that they will feel compelled to suggest and implement improvements. Transparency and good communication with the team generates mutual trust, connection and an openness for the development of all parties involved.

These are the practices that led Toyota to operational excellence, to the good results they have been able to sustain over the years and, above all, to the construction of a leadership culture of respecting people and continuously developing their professional skills. They have also made Toyota a reference for others, including their partners and suppliers. We invite you to adopt these practices, too.

Here’s a few final tips from Bruno and Ademir on how to be a true lean leader, the Toyota way:
• Results are important, but they are not always achieved quickly. Be patient and persist.
• Be proud of being part of your company, be humble when leading, and know that there is always more to learn.
• Strive to improve yourself and your team through continuous development and deep learning.
• Always think about what the correct processes are. They will eventually lead you to the results you want to achieve.
• Develop the people in your team to achieve goals together.
• Dive deep into problems. Analyzing them in depth guarantees an adequate and effective solution.
• Nobody can do anything alone. Work as a team. Learn from your people.

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